Onvia frequently gets calls from contractors who are interested in working with the government but don't know where to start. Many contractors worry that their lack of experience with government contracts could keep them from ever being awarded public-sector work. It's true that performance on past government projects is often considered in a contract award, but an RFP response from a company with no prior government experience won't necessarily be disqualified as long as the company can demonstrate relevant experience in the private sector.
The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) has established a best-practices manual for agencies that plan to collect and use past performance information; the manual can be found here. Among other things, the document encourages contracting officers to consider past performance significantly in their award decision. Any level of importance can be assigned to past performance at the contracting officer's discretion, but because it's an excellent way to determine contractor responsibility, most contracting officers do consider past performance in the evaluation.
A company with no experience at all is given a "neutral" past-performance rating. In name, this doesn't appear to be a negative, but it's highly unlikely that a company with a neutral rating will be awarded a contract if there are other qualified contractors competing. The good news is, private-sector contract performance is completely permissible for inclusion in the past-performance section of your RFP response. You may also submit information on key personnel who have performed on similar contracts, on work performed as part of a team or joint venture, or on government subcontracting work your company may have completed.
The sample contractor performance report provided by the OFPP is a helpful primer on how to put together your own past-performance evaluations. Performance evaluations on government contracts will be completed by the agency, but its private-sector counterparts won't complete these evaluations. You'll need to put together a reasonable facsimile yourself. It's important to be as honest as possible when completing the assessment.
The solicitation will let you know how many past-performance evaluations should be included in the RFP response. It will typically ask for the five to 10 most recent contracts related to the project at hand. A company with less experience than that may want to wait until it has a few more private-sector contracts under its belt before pursuing government contracts. Include any comments you feel are necessary to clarify problems that were encountered and how they were solved.
Also, keep in mind that government RFPs often contain different terminology than commercial contracts do. Using the same terminology and lexicon that is used in the RFP and the past-performance survey will make it easier for your evaluation to be compared with those of your competitors. Government projects are highly structured, so it's a good idea to emphasize your company's workflows and processes and how you performed on key deliverables in past projects.
Finally, remember to submit at least two contacts for your non-government references. If your company is in the running for the contract award, your references will be called! Make sure they know they will be contacted and that their phone numbers and addresses are up-to-date.