When preparing proposals and responding to discussion questions, offerors sometimes unconsciously respond to solicitation requirements and agency comments from a normative perspective, providing the information they believe “makes sense” rather than the information the agency has actually requested. It seems that this dynamic may have contributed to the circumstances considered by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the recent decision in Calibre Systems, Inc., B-414301.3 (September 20, 2017). In any event, the matter underscores the vital importance of focusing on what the agency wants rather than what you believe it needs.
The protest involved the award of a contract to Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. (BAH) by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for support services to continue administration and program management for the VA’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Under the solicitation, the award was to be based on the following five factors in descending order of importance: technical capability, project management plan, past performance, small business subcontracting plan, and price.
In connection with the project management plan factor, the RFP required offerors to provide a draft project management plan that addressed the proposed approach to meeting the requirements of the PWS. More specifically, it sought detailed plans for staffing, in-processing, training, operational deployment, contractor communications, risk assessment and mitigation, quality control, and transition. The solicitation also explained that a proposed “transition plan shall address in detail how the Contractor proposes to transition the tasks during the first 90 days of performance and accomplish the PWS tasks during the transition period.” Offerors were to be evaluated based on the extent to which a proposal demonstrated a clear understanding of the requirements and the risk and likelihood of success of the proposal’s project management plan approach.
The agency’s evaluation found that the incumbent contractor, Calibre, had proposed a lower price but assigned its proposal a “Satisfactory” rating for technical capability and a “Marginal” rating for its project management plan. The latter rating was based on an assessment of six strengths, three significant weaknesses and five weaknesses. In response to the award, Calibre challenged the award decision and the agency’s evaluation of its proposal. Among its attacks on the Marginal rating, Calibre argued that each of the weaknesses and significant weaknesses were unreasonable because it failed to accurately reflect Calibre’s final proposal revision (FPR), relied on unstated evaluation criteria, or resulted from misleading discussions.
The GAO decision focuses on Calibre’s challenge to one particular significant weakness as representative of its protest allegations. During discussions, the VA had raised the concern that it had only a moderate level of confidence in the transition approach due to Calibre’s failure to address how its proposed new and revised approaches would be addressed during the transition as noted throughout the project management plan. In response, Calibre simply revised its proposal to note that a detailed transition plan would be provided after award of the contract. During evaluation, the agency found that the protester had not addressed the VA’s concerns. In addition, the evaluators concluded that the proposal offered an accelerated transition period without explaining how the PWS tasks would be accomplished, and that this presented significant risk, which was assessed a significant weakness.
Calibre argued that this significant weakness was improper, claiming that it was based on an unstated evaluation criterion since the RFP did not require offerors to provide a detailed transition schedule or a plan to perform new and revised tasks. According to Calibre, the RFP included the transition plan among the contract deliverables due 14 days after the effective date of contract award, so that offerors had no reasonable expectation that a detailed transition plan was required in their proposals. Calibre also claimed that the VA ignored the fact that, as the incumbent, Calibre could propose inherent efficiencies, and therefore, include fewer transition activities in its plan.
The VA responded that, despite Calibre’s assertions to the contrary, the RFP specifically required a detailed draft transition plan. It went on to explain that the significant weakness was reasonably assessed because Calibre’s proposal failed to provide the required transition plan.
The GAO agreed with the agency that the solicitation required a detailed draft transition plan and noted that, “Where a firm provides only a blanket statement to indicate that it will meet a particular requirement, thereby discussing only the end results, but providing little or no detail about how it plans to meet or exceed the requirement, the agency may reasonably downgrade the proposal.” As the decision explains, an agency’s evaluation is ultimately dependent upon the information furnished in a proposal, and the offeror has the burden of submitting an adequately written proposal for the agency to evaluate.
According to the GAO, the fact that the RFP also noted that a final transition plan would be a deliverable during the performance of the contract did not negate the instruction given to potential offerors. Nor did it affect the agency’s ability to evaluate the proposal on the basis of the explicit requirement that the proposal include a detailed plan. None of Calibre’s other protest arguments fared any better and the GAO denied the protest. At the end of the day, the GAO found all of Calibre’s arguments to essentially reflect disagreements with the agency’s evaluation, which do not provide a valid basis to sustain a protest.
If you want to avoid such disagreements concerning the agency’s evaluation of your proposal, make sure the proposal provides precisely what the solicitation requires, even if from your perspective the requirements make no sense or seek irrelevant information. In the absence of some sort of impropriety, it’s always better to give the agency what it wants than to second guess its request.
Eric Whytsell is responsible for the contents of this Article.
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