Proposals Must Provide Clear Answers That Leave Agency Evaluators with No Questions
June 1, 2017
By: Eric Whytsell
In the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, the Captain famously says to the inmates, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” All too often, the same could be said to describe the issue at the core of protest decisions. A common theme running through many such decisions is a lack of effective communication that leads to poor ratings that in turn sink proposals. The recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) decision in Interactive Government Holdings, Inc., B-414071; B-414071.2 (February 2, 2017) serves as an important reminder of the importance of submitting clear and complete proposals that “deliver the mail” and remove any reason for evaluator concern.
The matter involved a protest by Interactive Government Holdings, Inc. (Interactive) of the contract award to ADC Management Services, Inc. (ADC) by the Army’s National Guard Bureau, for non-personal support services for the Air National Guard (ANG) Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP). The request for proposals (RFP) provided that a contract would be awarded to the responsible offeror whose proposal was most advantageous to the government based on four evaluation factors, listed in descending order of importance: (1) management approach, (2) technical approach, (3) past performance, and (4) price.
In addition to its other protest grounds, Interactive challenged the agency’s evaluation of its proposal under the management approach factor. For this factor, the RFP required offerors to describe their: (1) approach to staffing for 54 states and territories; (2) proposed personnel’s qualifications; (3) payroll processes for personnel in 54 states and territories; and (4) proposed subcontracting approach.
Interactive argued that it should have received a higher rating under the management approach factor, asserting that the agency had assessed a weakness on the basis of “a lack of understanding or appreciation of Interactive’s flexibility and approach to staffing.” In response, the agency explained that it had based the weakness on its interpretation of Interactive’s proposed number of yellow ribbon support specialists (YRSS) and regional leads to fulfill the RFP requirement to provide support services at 91 different necessarily meant that a number of the proposed regional leads would also have to perform the tasks required of the YRSS. From the agency’s perspective, Interactive’s failure to clearly state where the regional leads would be located created concerns that regional leads might not be able to successfully carry out their dual duties if they were stationed at wings with busy YRRP operations.
Interactive pooh-poohed those concerns, contending that the agency “makes far too much of the absence of specific information in [Interactive’s] proposal” about where regional leads were to be stationed. It also attempted to excuse its lack of detail by claiming that the RFP did not give offerors the authority to choose the wing/state where regional leads would be assigned.
GAO did not agree. Indeed, after the obligatory statement that its review of agency decisions entails neither a new evaluation nor second guessing of the agency but instead consists of an examination of the record to determine whether the agency’s evaluation was reasonable and consistent with the solicitation’s evaluation criteria, GAO made short work of Interactive’s arguments.
According to GAO, because the RFP required offerors to describe their staffing approach to providing support services at 91 ANG wings located throughout 54 states and territories, each offeror, not the agency, was responsible for choosing how to provide staffing to meet the RFP’s support service requirements. For this reason, GAO found no merit in the contention that Interactive lacked authority to decide where to place regional leads. Similarly, GAO rejected the notion that the agency had made “far too much” of the information missing from Interactive’s proposal, explaining that “it is an offeror’s responsibility to submit a well-written proposal with adequately-detailed information, or risk an unfavorable evaluation.”
In the end, GAO found that Interactive had merely disagreed with the agency’s interpretation and had failed to offer any facts to show that the agency’s concern regarding regional leads was unfounded or that its evaluation of Interactive’s management approach was unreasonable – and, therefore, denied this ground of protest.
The key take-away here is that offerors who fail to submit a well-written proposal with adequately-detailed information that addresses the RFP requirements risk an unfavorable evaluation. Given the significant discretion afforded to agency conclusions in evaluations, it is always difficult and often impossible to successfully argue that the agency unreasonably interpreted your proposal. The best approach is to work to avoid finding yourself in that situation – by making sure your proposal clearly and completely responds to the solicitation requirements and answers any potential questions before the agency has any reason to ask them. The failure to do so may very well turn into a “failure to communicate” that can’t be remedied through a protest.
Eric Whytsell is responsible for the contents of this Article.
© 2017 Jackson Kelly PLLC