With protests becoming a more concentrated problem for federal contracts, and contracting activity to significantly increase with Stimulus spending, a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) bid protest decision is very disturbing. The Obama Administration is putting pressure on agencies to increase competition and best value awards, but the GAO decision demonstrates the need for adequate documentation and justification for not only a best value decision, but making any decision at all.
The GAO decision pertained to a protest launched by Reston, Va.-based Access Systems Inc., challenging a $25.6 million task order for ongoing Marine Corps Systems Command technical and management support which was awarded to Avineon Inc. of Alexandria, Va. Access Systems was the incumbent contractor, and had submitted a lower bid than Avineon.
The Marine Corps' Request for Quote (RFQ) stated that the task order would be issued on a best value basis, where "overall technical merit [was considered] to be of significantly greater importance than evaluated price." But GAO decided the Marine Corps failed to provide necessary justification for the higher price, and thus sustained the protest.
The source selection team for the Marine Corps rated both companies' acceptable for the technical evaluation, with subsequent past performance as low risk. Access Systems and Avineon held comparable technical certifications and both had qualified personnel.
Best value contracts are supposed to be a tradeoff of proposed technical solutions, coupled with prices. However, best value decision often go to the lowest bidder because of the desire to lower costs and the increased pressure from industry of protests. One of the real issues is the inability of the government to understand what truly is in their best interest. This problem is a combination of unskilled personnel, under enormous pressures to move forward with contract actions, in addition to poor processes that are not adequately defined or followed.
The hope is that the pressure from the Obama Administration for greater visibility and transparency will drive agencies to be more diligent in documenting awards and following source selection procedures. Nonetheless, the GAO protest decision is not an isolated case.
Having disciplined, rigorous source selection procedures in place, coupled with adequate training for source selection personnel in how to follow those procedures, will be critical to ensure true best value awards. More importantly, this will also help ensure the government receives the best deal and the best solution. The evaluation criteria need not be overly complex, but must be thorough enough to ensure that critical factors are evaluated and the key determinates are incorporated to differentiate solutions and help with the tradeoff process.
It boils down to having sound evaluation criteria in the solicitation and ensuring offerors understand the criteria of how they will be rated. The government must then be thorough to evaluate proposals only on those criteria, and ensure adequate, precise documentation is the outcome of the process to substantiate an award, mitigate protest risk, and ensure the government does indeed acquire a best value solution.