The Most Controversial RFP Ever? Bidding on the 'Trump Wall'

The Most Controversial RFP Ever? Bidding On the 'Trump Wall' Begins.pngPresident Trump's Request for Proposal for the Mexico Border Wall isn't like most RFPs. It's high stakes, filled with controversy, and experts aren't sure it's even possible.

Trump's administration has been working hard to make his "big, beautiful wall" a reality. The wall was part of his campaign promise. Trump's solution for reducing illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico to the  US. They're trying to make the blockade a reality. US Customs and Border Protection recently issued their two 130-page Request For Proposals to build the 2,000 mile long barrier.
The proposal deadline was April 4th, and the bids rolled in. More than 700 interested candidates responded, though not all submitted official proposals. The 10 companies will be chosen to build prototypes. Stay tuned for an announcement in June. 
But let's put aside the actual reasons for the wall. Let's step back from all the political and human ramifications of it. Let's take a look at the RFP Itself. It can teach us a lot about our own RFP process. 

RFP lesson 1: is your request even possible? 

We've all been part of RFPs that were ambitious, maybe even unattainable. And of course the risk of an impractical RFP is that it wastes everyone's time. 
Many are arguing that 'Trump's wall' RFP is just that -- impossible. Between the extensive requirements, sky-high cost, and lack of current funding. Not to mention the time it would take to build, and the environmental factors.

Plausible requirements? 

Procurious wrote an insightful overview of the heated RFP, explaining why executing the request may prove to be difficult. First of all, because of the intensive requirements.

  • A 9-meter-high reinforced concrete barrier, extending 2 meters underground to prevent tunneling.
  • A similar barrier made from durable, see-through material.
  • The wall must be “cost-effective to build and repair”.
  • The barrier must be “physically imposing” and capable of resisting almost any attack by “sledgehammer, car jack, pickaxe, chisel, battery-operated impact tools, battery-operated cutting tools [or] oxy/acetylene torch for a minimum of one hour.”
  • At the same time, the wall must be “aesthetically pleasing”, reflecting Trump’s campaign promise of a 'beautiful wall'. Reports note that this requirement only applies to the North-facing side of the wall.
  • Features to prevent anyone from scaling the barrier or attaching grappling hooks to its summit.
  • Incorporation of electronically controlled gates for vehicles and pedestrians. [Emphasis added.] 
The requirements alone will make execution difficult. Moreover, some designers argue it can't be built based on environmental factors alone.
"The mountain ranges along the Mexico-US border would make the wall's construction nearly impossible and more costly, Miranda says. The areas without existing fences are the most dense and arid, so taking those physical challenges into consideration, it would take 16 years to build." Source. [Emphasis added.]
Companies also had to consider the political and social consequences of bidding. Several of the most qualified companies chose not to engage. Why? As one said “We have no interest in the border wall. As most builders know, it’s suicide.”

Reasonable Cost? 

The project is also complicated by the fact that the US Department of Homeland Security internal report predicted that the wall could cost as much as  $21.6 billion and take over three years to build.

Not surprisingly, funding the building of the wall is proving to be difficult. 

While Donald Trump famously promised his voters that 'Mexico will pay' for the border wall, the Mexican Government has repeatedly stated that it would not do so. The Trump administration is yet to reveal how it would compel Mexico to pay. The budget request for $2.6 billion to begin construction was seized upon last week by Graco Ramirez, the leader of Mexico’s national governors’ association, who claimed this proves that U.S. taxpayers will foot the entire bill.

The proposal is likely to face fierce opposition in Congress, where Democrats and fiscally-conservative Republicans are expected to block expenditure on this scale, particularly if estimates blow out to $21.6 billion.


Needless to say the cost is steep and the funding source remains murky. 

Legal and safety concerns? 

Because the proposed wall is s forcefully opposed, security is also a big concern. And not just for the wall or its guards, but also for those bidding to build it. 

This article listed several concerns from worried bidders: 

  • One potential bidder asked if authorities would rush to help if workers came under “hostile attack” while another asked if employees can carry firearms and if the government would indemnify them for using deadly force.
  • The winning bidders must submit a security plan with details including “fallback positions, evacuation routines and methods, muster area, medical staff members/availability, number of security personnel, qualifications, years of experience, etc. in the event of a hostile attack,” according to the solicitation. A chain-link fence with barbed wire around the construction site is required.
  • A proposal from National Consulting Service based in National City south of San Diego would create a monorail line atop the wall and would use voice-recognition technology to analyze the emotional states of riders to help law enforcement spot trouble before it breaks out.
    [Emphasis added.] 

There could also be unexpected legal entanglements due to the location of the wall. Lengthening the existing border to add the rest of the proposed fence could actually seal off Americans on the Mexican side of the wall

All said, there are several complications that make building the wall quite difficult. 
RFP takeaway: before you issue your RFP, ask a trusted colleague or consultant if your requirements and cost are reasonable. Before you write RFP questions, talk with your CIO, IT, and legal team to understand what legal and security concerns you need to consider


RFP lesson 2: are you painting providers into a corner?

The Trump Administration RFP is incredibly specific. And detailed questions and requirements are often a very good thing. Then providers understand exactly what you'e looking for, and it excludes the unqualified. 

But too many detailed requirements can also paint vendors into a corner. You issue an RFP because you're looking for a solution to a problem. But often, the the best solutions look different from what we expected. We need to give vendors room to suggest solutions that are outside our box.

Which is why it's so wise that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is entertaining creative proposals. While these proposals divert from the original requirements, they be more effective.
While the RFPs appear to require a highly-visible and physically imposing barrier, some companies have proposed hi-tech solutions to border security that could provide a 90% saving to the government. Examples include having two chain-link fences with a “no man’s land” in between and intrusion detection systems in place. Other invisible or “virtual” wall proposals would use AI software to analyse satellite and surveillance imagery and alert border guards to area where activity is detected.

An alternative idea for a physical barrier put forward by a Florida architecture firm is to use shipping containers as the building blocks for the wall. This could be a cost-effective and sustainable solution, particularly as the U.S. has a surplus of shipping containers due to the slowdown in global commerce.


Will these all-tech solutions make it into the final running? If Trump's fervent insistence on a "wall" rather than the "fence" border experts recommend, is a clue, then probably not.

But beyond that, the bidders have a fair amount of latitude in how they design it. In fact DHS is actually not even committed to a wall. It also accepting bids for a border fence. The difference: A wall is completely solid, while a fence is a barrier that you can see through.

Trump himself has continually corrected people who referred to his plans as a fence.

"It's not a fence. It's a wall," Trump said at a January press conference before he took office. "We're going to build a wall."

But, the increased visibility of a fence and/or all-tech solution is appealing. Especially combined with the impressive cost-savings, it may win the day after all.
RFP takeaway: focus your RFP on finding the right solution, not an exact execution.

RFP lesson 3: will your request actually solve your problem? 

President Trump promised the new border wall would control, even stop illegal immigration.
But what if illegal immigration is already steeply declining? And experts believe it will continue to decline?
This article from the Economist argues that it is and will continue to do so without a wall: 

But while the planned barrier may play well with Mr Trump's base, it addresses a problem that has largely abated. Illegal immigration has been declining since 2007...

During the economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, unauthorised immigrants, mainly from Mexico, flocked to America. The total number of undocumented immigrants rose from 3.5m in 1990 to a peak of 12.2m in 2007, but came to a halt after the financial crisis, according to The Pew Research Centre, a think-tank. Part of this decline has been a result of policy: the Obama administration made it a priority to stem the flow of immigrants, while also shielding long-term residents. But economic and demographic trends have also played a part.

Using a model that incorporates both demographic and economic factors, Mr Hansen and his colleagues predict that migration from Latin America will fall sharply over the next two decades, wall or no wall." [Emphasis added.]

If illegal immigration is declining naturally anyway it will be interesting to see how much a border wall does or does not impact those numbers. 

RFP takeaway: make sure the solution you're asking for will actually solve your problem. Don't issue an RFP to issue an RFP.

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