Words Matter: Your Proposal Must Be Clear and Convincing
January 11, 2016
By: Eric Whytsell
If you want to win contract awards, your proposal needs to clearly and persuasively explain why you are the right choice. The words you choose matter, as does the way you arrange them. Indeed, as the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision in Federal Acquisition Services Alliant Joint Venture, B-411842.2 (November 9, 2015) starkly demonstrates, sloppy syntax, grammar, and punctuation errors may be sufficient to render your proposal unacceptable and keep you out of the competitive range.
The case involved a General Services Administration (GSA) solicitation issued under the GSA’s Alliant Small Business government-wide acquisition contract for information technology support for the Department of Agriculture. The request for proposals (RFP) provided for a contract award made on a best-value basis, considering three evaluation factors, listed in descending order of importance: (1) technical capability, (2) past experience and performance, and (3) price. As relevant here, the RFP required proposals to “clearly demonstrate that the contractor understands the [performance work statement (PWS)]” and explained that “[t]he failure to explain the contractor’s ability to meet all requirements may result in the contractor’s proposal not being considered.” It also made clear that “[c]larity and completeness of proposals are of the utmost importance” and “proposals must be written in a practical, clear and concise manner.” The solicitation also cautioned that proposals that fail to meet the minimum requirements, including the requirements of the solicitation’s instructions, may be eliminated.
When the GSA reviewed the 18 proposals it received, it concluded that 16 of them, including those of Federal Acquisition Services Alliant Joint Venture (FASA), were technically unacceptable. Although the remaining 2 proposals were rated as marginal, GSA decided that it was in the government’s best interests to establish a competitive range consisting of the two marginally-rated proposals and to conduct discussions with them.
After being informed that its proposal was excluded from the competitive range and then receiving a debriefing explaining that its proposal was excluded due to an unacceptable rating under the technical capability factor, FASA protested its exclusion from the competitive range. FASA argued that the agency’s finding was unreasonable and based on erroneous weaknesses and deficiencies that were inconsistent with the solicitation’s stated evaluation criteria.
GAO disagreed, holding that the agency reasonably concluded that the proposal was unacceptable, because FASA’s proposal omitted required information, took exception to PWS requirements, and otherwise failed to clearly demonstrate its understanding of the PWS.
One of FASA’s central challenges related to the agency’s determination that its proposal was “riddled with grammatical errors . . . lack of contractor vs. government identification; spelling errors; lack of acronym identification, consistency and accuracy; inconsistent reference and terminology; and punctuation errors.” In its evaluation report, GSA explained that these errors prevented the agency from clearly interpreting a significant amount of the proposal, which GSA considered to “present performance risk in terms of quality control execution that, when combined with the inability to interpret the proposal in its entirety, resulted in the proposal being rendered unacceptable.” FASA argued that GSA’s conclusion was unreasonable because the RFP did not identify the quality of a proposal’s language or grammar as evaluation factors (i.e. that the agency had applied an unstated evaluation criteria). FASA also argued that the evaluation reflected a bias against non-native English speakers.
GSA rejected both contentions. GAO emphasized that the RFP required proposals to be “written in a practical, clear and concise manner,” and “clearly demonstrate that the contractor understands the PWS” – and cautioned that failure to comply with the instructions might result in elimination of a proposal. Under these circumstances, if issues with the writing and clarity of FASA’s proposal were an impediment to the agency’s evaluation, the agency was permitted to eliminate the proposal. GAO could not “conclude that it was inconsistent with the solicitation or unreasonable for the agency to evaluate the quality of writing, or clarity, of the protester’s proposal, either as a matter of compliance with the solicitation’s instructions, or as it concerned understanding of PWS requirements under the technical approach criteria of the technical factor.” Nor could GAO agree that the evaluation demonstrated a bias in favor of native English speakers, because the solicitation’s PWS specifically required that all contractor employees possess “[s]trong written and oral communication skills in the English language.”
As GAO noted, “Offerors are responsible for submitting a well-written proposal with adequately detailed information that allows for a meaningful review by the procuring agency.” Here, the errors in FASA’s proposal prevented the agency from being able to conduct a meaningful review, so FASA didn’t even make it to the competitive range. Obviously, responding to substantive solicitation requirements is not enough. Regardless of whether the RFP contains express language requiring clarity, contractors need to always make sure their proposals are clear and error-free if they want a realistic opportunity to win.
Eric Whytsell is responsible for the contents of this Article.
© Jackson Kelly PLLC 2016