If the first rule of proposal writing is "give the agency the information it asks for," the most important corollary is "make the proposal easy to understand." In other words, clarity and consistency is key; avoid anything in your proposal that might raise questions, confuse the evaluators, or otherwise detract from your message that you deserve to win the award. The recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision in MicroTechnologies, LLC, B-418894 (October 7, 2020) underscores the enduring importance of not relying on the agency to do your work for you.
The matter involved the award of a task order for IT support services to SMS Data Products Group, Inc. (SMS) by the Department of the Air Force, United States Space Force. The request for proposals (RFP) contemplated the issuance, on a best-value tradeoff basis, of a fixed-price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) task order. It provided that proposals would be evaluated considering two equally weighted factors, price and technical. The technical factor included two subfactors, staffing approach and management approach, with the staffing approach being the more important of the two.
Several companies submitted proposals in response to the solicitation, including SMS and MicroTechnologies, LLC (MT). Both received acceptable ratings under the staffing approach subfactor, and outstanding ratings under the management approach subfactor, but SMS's proposed price was almost $3.5 million less than that of MT. Based on that, the agency determined that award to SMS would result in selection of the proposal offering the highest technical rating and lowest price. When MT learned of the award to SMS, it filed the instant protest, arguing that the agency improperly evaluated its proposal and, as a result, made an unreasonable source selection decision.
The GAO began its discussion by noting that it does not substitute its judgment for that of the agency when considering protests of an agency's evaluation of proposals but instead reviews the record to determine whether the evaluation was reasonable and consistent with the solicitation's evaluation scheme and applicable statutes and regulations. It then identified the two principal proposal documents the RFP required offerors to submit: a staffing matrix and a labor category description document. The staffing matrix consisted of a table listing the proposed labor categories, the number of full-time equivalents for each category, whether each position identified would be staffed by the prime contractor or a subcontractor, what qualifications were applicable for each position, and what security clearance level was applicable to each position. The labor category description document was to detail the qualifications, job responsibilities, educational level, and experience requirements for each labor category identified in the staffing matrix.
The record revealed that MT had been assigned a significant weakness because (i) its staffing matrix included information about the security clearances of certain positions that did not meet the requirements of the RFP; and (ii) the information provided in the staffing matrix conflicted with information about the required security clearances for the same positions that MT provided with the labor category descriptions. In its protest, MT contended that the agency acted unreasonably in assigning its proposal the significant weakness because it contained no more than purportedly "minor inconsistencies" in detailing the security clearance requirements for the positions in question. It also claimed that its labor category descriptions contained the correct security clearance information that demonstrated the proposal's compliance with the RFP. Finally, MT pointed out that its proposal included resumes that also identify the correct security clearance requirements for the positions. Thus, MT essentially argued that the agency should not have downgraded its proposal for the inconsistencies because the proposal still contained sufficient information for the agency to have found it compliant.
The GAO disagreed. It noted that every offeror is responsible for submitting an adequately written proposal and bears the risk that the agency either may downgrade its proposal during evaluation, or find it unacceptable, where the offeror fails to demonstrate compliance with all of a solicitation's requirements. Here, the record showed the evaluators assigned the significant weakness because the inconsistency in MT's proposal introduced a concern about whether or not the proposal met all of the RFP's requirements. The agency also noted that, while MT unilaterally chose to submit some resumes with its proposal, they were not required and, therefore, were not reviewed in detail. On these facts, the GAO concluded the inconsistency reasonably could lead the evaluators to have a concern about whether, in fact, MT was proposing to meet the RFP's requirements. Finding no basis to object to the agency's assignment of the significant weakness, in part, because of this inconsistency in the MT proposal, GAO denied this aspect of MT's protest.
The moral of this story? It's much better to make sure up front that your proposal clearly and consistently "delivers the mail" than to rely on the agency to pore through your proposal to piece together the information you were required to provide. To be sure, in some cases agencies may decide to go above and beyond in an effort to understand your proposal. But you can't rely on them doing so and the GAO will not bail you out by second-guessing an agency's decision not to.
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