US government tender documents 'don't pass readability tests'

12 April 2016

The poor readability of US federal procurement documents is increasing costs for government agencies, according to research.

A report by VisibleThread on the clarity of government procurement documents said that federal agency proposal solicitation documents had poor readability.

The report said difficulty in understanding the documents was causing unnecessary costs, as bidders factored in time spent on developing proposals into their price, while better value for money contractors could end up disqualified if they misunderstood poorly written documents.

VisibleThread analysed documents from five of the largest federal bidding processes in 2015 with a combined value of $7bn. It ranked the clarity of the key sections that tell bidders how to develop their proposals, using third party standards such as the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests and the plain language dictionary published in conjunction with the Plain Language Act of 2010.

Characteristics such as readability, complexity of words and sentence length were measured. The report said none of the documents analysed passed typical standards for readability.

VisibleThread said unreadable RFPs often had to have multiple amendments for clarification and sometimes even needed to be reissued. The report acknowledged that there was a lot of variation in readability between different RFPs and different agencies.

However, it said agencies could improve the quality of their documents by reducing the complexity of writing, using shorter, simpler sentences and using plain language.

VisibleThread CEO Fergal McGovern said: “Federal RFPs have a reputation for being hard to understand and we wanted to measure that. Our goal is to begin a discussion of how processes could be improved to benefit everyone involved.”

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