Link: GAO Opinion
Agency: Department of Labor
Disposition: Protest denied.
Keywords: Evaluation Strengths and Weaknesses
General Counsel P.C. Highlight: There is no legal requirement that an agency must award the highest possible rating, or the maximum point score, under an evaluation factor simply because the proposal contains strengths and/or is not evaluated as having any weaknesses.
Career Innovations, LLC (CI) protests the award of a contract under a request for proposals (RFP), issued by the Department of Labor, for Job Corps outreach and admissions services.
The RFP, issued as a small business set-aside, provided for the award of a cost?plus incentive?fee contract for outreach and admissions services to enroll youth at Job Corps Centers. Offerors were informed that award would be made on a cost/technical tradeoff basis considering the following factors and associated maximum point scores: technical proposal; staffing resources proposal; past performance and experience; and cost justification. The RFP also identified subfactors and associated maximum point scores under certain of the evaluation factors.
With regard to the technical proposal evaluation factor, the RFP identified two subfactors: outreach and admissions. Under these subfactors, offerors were instructed to respond to a list of questions by describing, among other things, their proposed outreach plans and admissions methods, as well as their understanding of the work and their approach to meeting outcomes and quality indicators. Offerors were also required to describe in detail how they would provide innovative outreach to Native American and other populations.
With regard to the staffing resources proposal evaluation factor, the RFP identified the following five subfactors (each worth four points): staffing level and adequacy; staffing qualifications; project director’s credentials and experience; adequacy of staff development, retention, and incentives; and management/corporate contract support and oversight. Offerors were instructed to provide, among other things, a detailed organizational chart showing all staff working on the project, including subcontractor staff, a resume for the proposed project director, position descriptions, and a list of all proposed key personnel.
With regard to the past performance and experience evaluation factor, the RFP required different submissions depending upon whether the offeror was an experienced Job Corps outreach/admissions or career transition services contractor; a new firm with relevant experience; or a new firm without relevant experience.
With regard to the cost justification evaluation factor, the RFP instructed offerors to propose fees for outreach/admissions and career transition services operations and submit a business management proposal showing proposed costs. The RFP stated that the agency would evaluate proposed costs under the following five subfactors: adherence to the RFP requirements; explanation and support of all proposed costs; general and administrative costs; consistency of costs with technical proposal; and total staff compensation. Offerors were advised that the agency would assess whether an offeror’s proposed costs supported its technical proposal and the extent to which its cost allocations and supporting explanations assured a reasonable and prudent expenditure of federal program funds. The RFP also advised offerors that, under the cost factor, the agency would evaluate offerors’ proposed costs and fixed fees for reasonableness and realism. Another offeror was eventually awarded the contract based on its higher technical score and lower evaluated costs.
CI protested, challenging the evaluation of its proposal under each of the evaluation factors. In particular, with respect to the evaluation of the firm’s past performance and experience, CI complained that CI should have been considered a new firm with relevant experience, and not an experienced Job Corps outreach/admissions or career transition services contractor. Prior to submitting a report in response to the protest, the agency advised GAO that it would take corrective action by suspending contract performance and reevaluating CI’s past performance. The protest was dismissed.
The Contracting Officer (CO) reevaluated CI’s past performance and experience, considering the joint venture to be a new firm with relevant experience. CI’s total point score increased by 3.33 points. As a result of the reevaluation, CI’s overall point score became 75.67, which is 1.96 points higher than the awardee’s overall score of 73.71. The CO concluded that CI’s and the awardee’s proposals were technically equal and that the awardee’s remained entitled to award on the basis of its lower evaluated costs.
CI challenges its evaluation under the technical proposal, staff resources proposal, and cost justification factors, and contends that it should have received higher point scores under each factor. GAO states that in reviewing protests challenging the evaluation of proposals, it will not conduct a new evaluation or substitute its judgment for that of the agency but will examine the record to determine whether the agency’s judgment was reasonable and in accord with the RFP evaluation criteria. A protester’s mere disagreement with the agency’s evaluation provides no basis to question the reasonableness of the evaluators’ judgments.
CI complains that the agency unreasonably assessed a weakness in its proposal under the technical proposal factor by viewing CI’s lack of an agreement with one party to be a weakness. CI contends that the RFP did not state that the agency would evaluate, or require offerors to submit, such agreements. However, contrary to CI’s arguments, the record shows that the technical evaluation panel’s (TEP) concern with CI’s relationship with one party was not based upon CI’s failure to provide an agreement memorializing that relationship. Rather, the assessed weakness reflected the TEP’s concern that CI had failed to provide any details discussing that party’s acceptance of the responsibilities that CI identified in its proposal, despite the agency’s specific discussions request for such details. GAO finds that assessing a weakness in this regard was reasonable given that offerors were required to provide detailed, complete, concrete, and feasible approaches and strategies to achieve the specified outcomes.
CI also disputes the agency’s assessed weaknesses with regard to its determination of student arrival rates and its proposed management positions under the staff resources proposal factor. CI contends that its proposal stated that it intended to continue the incumbent’s procedures which, according to the protester, have often exceeded current Job Corps admissions capacity over the past two years. Although the protester disagrees with the agency’s evaluation of CI’s staff resources proposal, the protester provides no basis to question the reasonableness of the evaluators’ judgments in this regard. The record shows that CI did not substantively respond to the agency’s request but largely repeated its earlier estimate.
CI also complains that it should have received a higher score under the cost justification factor, because the agency identified a number of strengths and no weaknesses under that factor. GAO finds that this argument is without merit. There is no legal requirement that an agency must award the highest possible rating, or the maximum point score, under an evaluation factor simply because the proposal contains strengths and/or is not evaluated as having any weaknesses.
CI also protests the CO’s determination that the protester’s and awardee’s proposals were technically equal, contending that this determination reflects bias in favor of the awardee. Specifically, CI complains that the initial selection decision to the awardee was based upon the fact that the CO had found that the awardee’s proposal had a 1.37 higher overall point score than CI’s. CI contends that, because its proposal had the highest overall point score (by 1.96 points) following the reevaluation of the firm’s past performance/experience, the agency was required to find that CI’s proposal was technically superior to the awardee’s. GAO states that it is well established that ratings, be they numerical, adjectival, or color, are merely guides for intelligent decision making in the procurement process. In this respect, the RFP advised offerors that point scores were advisory only and were not binding on the source selection official. Here, the TEP’s assignment of point scores was supported by narrative discussions of the offerors’ respective strengths and weaknesses. CI does not identify any aspect of its proposal that establishes that its proposal should have been found technically superior to the awardee’s. Rather, CI’s arguments reflect nothing more than mere disagreement with the CO’s selection decision, which does not demonstrate that the CO’s judgment was unreasonable. The protest is denied.