Link: GAO Opinion
Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
Disposition: Protest denied.
Keywords: Technical Evaluation
General Counsel P.C. Highlight: Where an agency’s evaluation is challenged, GAO will consider whether the evaluation was reasonable and consistent with the terms of the solicitation and applicable statutes and regulations.
DSS Healthcare Solutions, LLC protests the elimination from the competitive range of the proposal it submitted in response to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) request for proposals (RFP), for information technology equipment and services .
The solicitation provided for the award of up to 15 contracts on a “best value” basis considering the following factors: technical (with subfactors for management and sample task orders (STO)), past performance, veterans involvement, small business participation commitment, and price. The agency received more than 90 proposals, including from DSS. DSS’s proposal was rated acceptable for the technical and management factors, low risk for past performance, susceptible to being made acceptable for small business participation commitment, and was given full credit for veterans involvement. VA determined that DSS’s proposal was not one of the most highly rated, and on this basis did not include it in the competitive range. The solicitation included three sample task orders (STO 1, STO 2, and STO 3), the responses to which were to be evaluated. The offerors were not given an opportunity to correct or revise a sample task response. The evaluation of each sample task considered: (1) Understanding of Problems and (2) Feasibility of Approach.
DSS was rated acceptable for STO 1, unacceptable for STO 2, and good for STO 3. DSS asserts that the agency used unstated criteria in evaluating its responses to the STOs. Specifically, DSS notes that for each STO the agency compiled a list of task areas and subtasks that an offeror was required to address to receive evaluation credit. DSS also protests that the agency used undisclosed evaluation criteria, and otherwise unreasonably evaluated its proposal under the STOs and the management subfactor.
The solicitation required offerors under STO 2 (software development) to design, develop and field a single financial system to replace three current systems used by approximately 100,000 VA personnel. Offerors were required to describe their approach to how they would execute all tasks necessary for this effort, and list the labor categories required to perform each effort of the task. As part of its evaluation of offerors’ STO responses, the agency prepared a list of key focus areas and lower level focus areas that it believed an offeror would have to address to demonstrate that it understood the task and had a feasible approach to solving it. With respect to STO 2, the key focus areas and lower level focus areas were: project management (stakeholders, resources/labor categories, project schedule, and project management processes including change management, configuration management, risk management, quality assurance, communications, tools, and integrated product teams); policy understanding (compliance with government policy and standards for a technical reference model, VA Enterprise Architecture (EA), Office of the Management and Budget financial guidelines, and security policies); software solution (business process gap analysis, system architecture design, development process that takes into account system capacity requirements, and data warehouse/reporting capability); data migration (data migration planning, data requirements sessions with legacy system owners/users, data cleansing strategy, and migration process); training (training strategy and plan, developing training materials, training environment, and training delivery); testing (test planning, methods for test support, conducting tests, and providing test activities); and deployment/post go-live support (support planning, fielding strategy, help desk, and support teams). The agency asserts that the above considerations were related to the stated evaluation criteria and thus were properly considered.
GAO states that while solicitations must inform offerors of the basis for proposal evaluation, and the evaluation must be based on the factors set forth in the solicitation, Federal Acquisition Regulation sect. 15.304, agencies are not required to specifically list every area that may be taken into account, provided such areas are reasonably related to or encompassed by the stated criteria. Here, the key focus and lower level focus areas that the agency considered in evaluating STO 2 were reasonably related to or encompassed by the stated criteria, and thus were not improper unstated evaluation criteria. As noted, the solicitation provided that the offeror’s response to the sample task would be evaluated to determine whether the offeror understood the problem and had a feasible approach to solving it. Understanding and feasibility of approach, however, are not factors that can be evaluated on their own, without reference to the work to be accomplished. DSS has furnished no basis for GAO to conclude that such areas considered by the agency as project management, policy understanding, testing and training, and the elements that comprise these broader areas such as stakeholder involvement and compliance with government policies, were not reasonably related to performing the overall STO 2.
DSS further asserts that even apart from the issue of unstated criteria, the evaluation of its proposal was unreasonable. GAO states that where an agency’s evaluation is challenged, it will consider whether the evaluation was reasonable and consistent with the terms of the solicitation and applicable statutes and regulations.
DSS asserts that the agency overlooked information in its proposal. The agency explains that a statement in DSS’s proposal addressed only financial policies and requirements, and then only minimally. According to the agency, the evaluated weakness was based on, among other things, its determination that DSS’s proposal did not indicate an understanding of compliance with the applicable information technology policies and standards. More specifically, the agency determined that DSS’s proposal did not demonstrate a full understanding of, or capability to comply with, VA Directive 6051, which is required as part of establishing and implementing VA’s integrated One?VA EA. In sum, according to the agency, the proposal provided only minimal detail with respect to the One?VA EA.
In response, the protester asserts that the agency should have recognized that DSS, with its substantial expertise with One-VA EA, would comply with mandatory standards and practices required for VA development initiatives. However, the fact that DSS has experience with One-VA EA is not sufficient since DSS did not address the policies and standards in its proposal. In this regard, GAO states that it is incumbent on a protester to prepare an adequate proposal; the protester cannot use its experience as a substitute for meeting this obligation. Accordingly, the agency reasonably assigned the proposal a weakness on account of an inadequate discussion of DSS’s approach to performing the STO 2 software design and development effort in a VA environment.
The protester also contends that the agency criticized its proposal with respect to One?VA and enterprise architecture because it did not contain required buzzwords, specifically, references to the technical reference model and enterprise architecture. According to DSS, since it is an expert in these areas it was able to propose elements drawn from them, without explaining their origins. The agency explains that DSS’s proposal was downgraded because it did not sufficiently demonstrate that DSS understood applicable policy because it did not discuss VA standards as applied to the DSS solution. According to the agency, without an explanation of the application of the VA standards, it was not clear that DSS was capable of implementing the required integrated One-VA EA. DSS does not respond to the agency’s explanation of how DSS’s proposal was rated, and GAO has no basis to question the evaluation in this regard as unreasonable.
The VA also assigned DSS’s proposal a significant weakness under STO 2 for data migration, finding the proposal lacked an overall approach and strategy. The agency maintains that DSS did not provide details regarding an overall strategy for accomplishing the data migration effort. Among other things, according to the agency, DSS did not identify the different types of data to be migrated or specific data objects, and did not discuss government review and approval of generated data migration plans, establishing/maintaining a staging environment for migration processing, and executing mock or trial migration loads. Again, DSS does not address the agency’s explanation; the protester neither refutes the agency’s determination that its proposal lacked this information regarding a data migration approach, nor explains why the missing information was not relevant to whether data migration would be successful. In these circumstances, GAO has no basis to question the evaluation. The protest is denied.