Just how good is Gen AI in helping with proposals?


Lohfeld Consulting's Bruce Feldman shares the findings of a new AI study that found several areas that were reassuring and some surprises.

We hear a lot of hype about how generative artificial intelligence is transforming proposal development, but just how useful is it? Lohfeld Consulting Group recently completed a study, Benchmarking Generative AI Tools for Proposal Development, that assesses and compares the performance of public and private platforms in performing fundamental proposal tasks. This study shows that these tools have enormous capabilities but also vary widely in performance.

Key Findings

We characterized five public Gen AI platforms (OpenAI’s ChatGPT-3.5, Anthropic’s Claude Instant and Claude-2-100k, Meta’s Llama-2-70b, and Google Bard) and two private, government contracting domain-aware Gen AI platforms on eight different proposal assistance tasks. Here are some things we learned.

  • Comparing the Platforms. We were pleased to see that both private platforms specifically designed for GovCon performed as well or better than the public Gen AI systems. That is reassuring because, unlike many public platforms, these private platforms do not record your data for training of future models and other purposes. The architecture of these private platforms is also specifically designed to protect your data from corruption and leakage.
  • Consistent Meaning. When we ran the same scenario for the same platform multiple times, we found that the underlying meaning of the responses did not change very much. Gen AI platforms are designed to be creative in formatting and word use, but we were reassured to see that the impulse for creativity did not quickly drive the Gen AI platforms to make things up (aka hallucinate).
  • Platform Stability. We sometimes saw the public platforms unable to respond to a prompt, either hanging incomplete or answering with “unable to respond to a prompt of this length.” We found instances where a partial response could be completed simply by typing “continue” into the prompt window.
  • Adaptability to Your Best Practices. With two exceptions, the Gen AI chatbots were consistently able to respond to all of our engineered prompts. That will be key when it becomes time to adapt your in-house Gen AI platform to your company’s best practices and knowledge management repository. The exceptions were Google Bard and Meta’s Llama-2-70b, both of which were unable to respond to prompts in more than one of the eight test scenarios.

Overview of the Study

Here is an overview of the study itself. We set the primary objectives of the study to be:

  1. Assess and compare the capabilities of public and private Gen AI platforms to perform tasks typical of proposal development for government solicitations.
  2. Pinpoint specific areas where these Gen AI tools exceed or fall short of expectations in proposal development tasks and characterize the implications.

We selected five public platforms (OpenAI’s ChatGPT-3.5, Google Bard, Anthropic’s Claude Instant and Claude-2-100K, Llama-2-70b) and two private platforms to be characterized.

We identified eight typical proposal tasks where, a priori, we felt that Gen AI tools offer the potential to significantly increase employee productivity. The eight proposal assistance tasks were:

  1. Idea Generation
  2. Drafting Proposal Narrative
  3. Data Analysis and Integration
  4. Compliance Checking
  5. Language and Tone Optimization
  6. Revision and Editing Suggestion
  7. Question Answering and Clarification
  8. Formatting and Presentation

For each proposal assistance task, we prepared a prompt that included a scenario and a tasker (called a “request”) that mirrors real-life challenges in proposal development. We also developed and applied benchmarks so we could assess each Gen AI platform’s practical utility. The test methodology is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Benchmarking Gen AI Study Methodology

We ran each prompt three times for each platform, for a total of 168 runs (7 platforms x 8 proposal assistance tasks x 3 runs/task). For each proposal assistance task, we established benchmarks scored on an integer scale of 1 – 5. We used ChatGPT-4 to score the results, with review by a human Test Manager. We only saw one instance where the human Test Manager assessment differed from the ChatGPT-4 score by a value greater than one.

We chose not to try to characterize the performance of proposal tasks that would rely on semantic search and other techniques to give a Gen AI platform secured access to data in a user’s private library for the following reasons: (1) many public platforms don’t offer this feature; (2) we would have had to create, upload, and transform such a library in each platform; and (3) our research suggested there would be major challenges in controlling variables.

Summary of Test Scenarios and Responses

The study effort generated a few surprises, a lot of reassurance, and some unexpected insights into the importance of writing good prompts. Here are some of the findings from our testing against each of the proposal assistance tasks.

  • Idea Generation. Each Gen AI platform was tasked to generate 20 innovative ideas responsive to one of four typical evaluation criteria (flexibility, scalability, feasibility, security) for an IT system and explain the benefit of each idea. We scored each idea on a scale of 1 – 5 for its associated evaluation criterion and for innovation. We saw the percentage of ideas generating the highest score of 5 ranging from 0% to 50%, a surprisingly wide variation. We suspect this scenario is the most sensitive to the training data for the Gen AI platform. ChatGPT-3.5 and one of the private platforms realized the highest scores.
  • Drafting Proposal Narrative. We tasked each Gen AI platform to review a proposal for an energy project and create an executive summary with specific guidelines (e.g., state the project objectives). The benchmarks for this proposal assistance task were Compliance with Writing Guidelines and an industry-standard readability measure called Flesch-Kincaid reading ease and grade level. We note that all responses scored a Very Difficult readability on the Flesch-Kincaid assessments. Both private platforms outscored all the public platforms, and both Google Bard and Llama-2-70b failed to generate responsive outputs for the exercise. We observed that the readability of the Gen AI responses was comparable to the readability of the prompt itself, but we have not yet tested to explore whether the readability of the Gen AI responses was cued by the prompt.
  • Data Integration and Analysis. We provided each Gen AI platform with a proposal that included a complex dataset (related to urban traffic management) and tasked each platform to assess the significance of the dataset and write an analysis paragraph for the proposal narrative. The results for all the runs of all the platforms scored a 4 on a scale of 1 – 5, suggesting that the problem wasn’t challenging enough to see variation in responses. We were pleased to note that, despite the recognized shortcomings of Gen AI platforms when it comes to arithmetic, all the platforms were able to work with statistical data.
  • Compliance Checking. We tasked the Gen AI platforms to review a solicitation and corresponding proposal to confirm:
  1. The proposal addresses all the specific project requirements, deliverables, and scope as outlined in the solicitation;
  2. The proposal aligns with Format and Submission Guidelines in the solicitation;
  3. The proposal demonstrates how it meets each evaluation criterion; and
  4. The proposal includes all mandatory documentation and certifications.

We were pleased to note that all Gen AI platforms were able to meet this standard. In several cases, the Gen AI platforms offered suggestions for improving the responses, partially addressing questions of responsiveness as well.

  • Language and Tone Optimization. We gave the Gen AI platforms a technical narrative and tasked them to provide a revised version “suitable for a general audience while maintaining technical accuracy.” This task is an exemplar for revising a proposal to establish a voice suitable for expected evaluators. All the Gen AI platforms were able to create revisions that met or exceeded the benchmarks for Improvement in Readability and Tone and Customization for a Targeted Audience. Consistently low results (typically, 2 on a scale of 1 – 5) for the Adherence to Formal/Professional Language Standards benchmark revealed a weakness in the prompt not providing a clear definition of “general audience.” This is a valuable reminder that you need to prompt Gen AI chatbots with clear instructions on audience type.
  • Revision and Editing Suggestions. The Gen AI platforms reviewed a narrative to provide editing suggestions to improve coherence, clarity, and persuasiveness. This emulates the role of a reviewer who is to provide suggestions specifically to improve the quality of the narrative. The results showed the greatest variability in responses of all the proposal assistance tasks; the benchmark scores ranged from 2 – 5 on a scale of 1 – 5. Claude Instant and one of the private platforms produced the highest consistent results. Interestingly, Llama-2-70b’s three runs yielded results of 5, 3, and incomplete (hung). This variability suggests that care needs to be taken to craft prompts specific to the platform and perhaps the topic. The variability also reinforces the importance of human review of results rather than just blanket acceptance of the Gen AI output.
  • Question Answering and Clarification. We asked the Gen AI platforms to respond accurately and comprehensively to 12 complex questions for a proposal to use AI as an aid in wildlife conservation. We noted with interest that each Gen AI platform was consistent in its responses for all three runs: the Claude-2-100K and Llama-2-70b platforms scored 5 every run against both benchmarks; the Bard platform hung and was unable to respond on any of its runs; and the other platforms scored 4 for every run against both benchmarks.
  • Formatting and Presentation. We tasked the Gen AI platforms to reformat a proposal draft according to specific guidelines, focusing on layout, readability, and professional presentation standards. The benchmarks for this task were Adherence to Specified Formatting Guidelines and Aesthetic Appeal and Professionalism of Layout. We observed significant variability in the scores, with one of the private platforms receiving the highest average score and Bard receiving the lowest score. Notably, ChatGPT-4 limited its score for the latter benchmark because it had no information on the use of color and other aesthetic tools, a reasonable caveat.

So, What Does It All Mean?

Overall, the study reinforces the idea that Gen AI is going to dramatically change how businesses approach proposal writing, but in our opinion, you will only succeed by blending AI efficiency with human expertise. The Gen AI chatbots we assessed have the flexibility to be adapted to your company’s best practices, but you will need to invest the time and effort to create and test the prompts that make your people more productive.

Bruce Feldman is a Managing Director leading Lohfeld Consulting’s AI initiative and brings 30+ years of business development, capture management, and proposal development expertise specializing in Space and National Intelligence programs for the U.S. Air Force (USAF), U.S. Space Force (USSF), Intelligence Community (IC), Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Department of Defense (DOD) 4th Estate, and Combatant Commands. He is a retired Lt. Col., USAFR and has a MSEE from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a BSEE from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and a BA in Chemistry from Yale University.