Make Sure to Look at the Forest as Well as the Trees: Read Proposal Requirements in Context
February 15, 2016
By: Eric Whytsell
When assessing opportunities and preparing proposals, reading and understanding the contents of the solicitation is imperative. If you don’t know what the solicitation requires, it can be very hard to prepare a responsive, much less winning, proposal. But focusing exclusively on the words themselves – separated from their proper context – can also lead offerors astray. This point was brought home in the recent decision in Dell Services Federal Government, Inc., B-412340 et al. (January 20, 2016).
The decision involves a protest by Dell Services Federal Government, Inc. (Dell) of the issuance of a task order to Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services, LLC (HP) by the Department of Education, Federal Student Aid (FSA), for a Next Generation Data Center to provide hosting services for FSA’s student loan-related data. One of Dell’s protest grounds was that the agency’s evaluation under the PWS factor was unreasonable because it applied unstated evaluation criteria. More particularly, Dell complained that the agency improperly required offerors to address their approach to each of the 21 sub-domains in the context of a cloud-based environment even though the relevant solicitation Attachment did not mention the cloud with respect to these sub-domains.
However, the solicitation’s “Statement of Objectives” made clear that the agency hoped to realize significant benefits by migrating to a hybrid hosting environment and stated that “FSA has completed an initial cloud suitability analysis of its application stack and has determined approximately 60% of the applications may be able to be transitioned to a hybrid or private Cloud.” In addition, five of the seven key performance objectives in the Statement of Objectives specifically mentioned the cloud or the solicitation’s hybrid delivery model (which involved the cloud). Award was to be made on a best-value basis, considering a number of evaluation factors, including the quality of the offeror’s performance work statement (PWS). Under the PWS factor, proposals were to be evaluated to assess how well the offer’s PWS “demonstrates logical and feasible methods for fulfilling the 21 sub-domain Requirements, while meeting the Statement of Objectives and Requirements provided within the solicitation.”
When the evaluations were tallied, Dell’s proposal was found to have met the solicitation requirements but to lack certain details relating to seven of the 21 sub-domains. During Dell’s debriefing, the agency referred those sub-domain responses as weaknesses while assigning an overall strength for meeting all of the requirements pertaining to the 21 sub-domains listed in the solicitation. Overall, Dell’s PWS rating was merely “Satisfactory”.
Dell challenged each of the weaknesses assigned to its proposal and contended that the agency unreasonably assigned weaknesses on the basis of an unstated evaluation criteria: failure to address cloud-related requirements under sub-domains for which Attachment A of the solicitation did not specifically mention the cloud. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected this argument, noting that, while procuring agencies must identify significant evaluation factors and subfactors in their solicitations, “they need not identify every aspect of each factor that might be taken into account; rather, agencies may take into account considerations that are reasonably related to, or encompassed by, the stated evaluation criteria.” In this case, the GAO found ample basis for the agency’s consideration of cloud-related issues. As noted above, the procurement’s purpose was to transition to a hybrid hosting environment in which the majority of software applications will be hosted via a cloud and the RFP’s “Statement of Objectives” emphasized the importance of a hosting solution involving cloud-based solutions. The specific mentions in the Statement of Objectives of the cloud or the hybrid delivery model that includes the cloud and the PWS evaluation criteria’s focus on fulfilling the sub-domain requirements while meeting the Statement of Objectives provided additional grounds for the GAO’s conclusion: “In this context we find that cloud-based considerations were reasonably related to, and inherent in, each of the evaluation factors such that it was reasonable for the agency to consider whether offerors addressed cloud-related requirements under each of the sub-domains, even where the solicitation description of the sub-domain did not specifically mention the cloud.” Needless to say, the GAO denied this protest ground.
When viewed through the lens of hindsight, this outcome may seem relatively obvious. It’s all too easy to ask now why the Dell proposal writers did not make the necessary connections and include more information about the cloud. But, in reality, things are often not nearly so clear in the heat of proposal preparation. If you want to avoid this kind of outcome, make sure that your capture team doesn’t forget to pay attention to the contextual “forest” while it’s trying to understand and respond to the RFP’s requirement “trees.”
Eric Whytsell is responsible for the contents of this Article.
© Jackson Kelly PLLC 2016