Link: GAO Opinion
Agency: Department of Justice
Disposition: Protest sustained.
Protest is sustained in a negotiated procurement, where solicitation required best-value evaluation and agency failed to document or adequately explain how awardee’s proposal overcame significant weaknesses identified in the initial evaluation, and failed to document or adequately explain its assessment of the relative merits of the proposals or perform a comparative assessment of proposals when making the source selection.
General Counsel P.C. Highlight:
LIS protests the agency’s evaluation of LIS’s and Labat’s proposals and source selection decision. LIS argues that the evaluation and source selection are flawed because the agency failed to adhere to the stated evaluation criteria, did not properly consider or compare the relative merits of the proposals, and did not adequately document the evaluation. GAO states that in reviewing challenges to an agency’s evaluation of proposals, GAO examines the record to determine whether the agency’s judgment was reasonable and in accord with the evaluation criteria listed in the solicitation and applicable procurement laws and regulations. In order for GAO to review the reasonableness of an agency’s evaluation judgment, the agency must have adequate documentation to support its judgment. In this regard, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requires that agencies sufficiently document their judgments, including documenting the relative strengths, deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and risks supporting their proposal evaluations. An agency that fails to adequately document its source selection decision bears the risk that GAO may be unable to determine whether the decision was proper. Where the agency undertakes a cost/technical tradeoff, as in this case, adequate documentation requires more than just generalized statements of proposal equivalency where the record evidences the existence of relative differences in proposals. Source selection decisions that are devoid of substantive analysis or consideration of whether one proposal is superior to another are insufficient to demonstrate the reasonableness of the agency’s decision.
The record here reflects that the agency did not document any of its non-price evaluation findings and conclusions with regard to LIS’s and Labat’s proposals after the initial evaluation, except for (1) the SSEB’s evaluation summary addendum that was prepared after discussions and in advance of the previously filed protest, and (2) the SSA’s source selection decision prepared as corrective action in response to the previous protest. As discussed below, neither these documents, nor the additional explanations of the SSA at a hearing held by GAO, are sufficient for us to determine that the agency made a reasonable source selection decision.
For example, the SSEB evaluation summary addendum and SSA’s source selection decision provide only general conclusions and do not contain any qualitative analysis of proposals. In this regard, the SSEB evaluation summary addendum states only that Labat addressed all of the agency’s concerns during discussions, without any analysis of the proposal; and the source selection decision contains only summary conclusions, listed in bullet point format, without any discussion whatsoever of the qualitative merits of proposals to illustrate the reasonableness of the conclusions. For example, the source selection decision concludes without explanation that both proposals showed that the firms understood the required services, could handle the capacity of the work, understood the design and methods of the required services, addressed library sciences techniques, offered key personnel and sufficient staffing plans, and had “no issues” concerning project organization and firm experience. There is no discussion of the relative merits of either of the proposals to support these conclusions; that is, there is no discussion of the relative proposal strengths, deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and risks supporting the agency’s conclusions, as required by the FAR.
Also, the evaluation record does not contain any meaningful analysis of offerors’ discussion responses. During the GAO hearing, the SSA was able to provide only cursory explanations of discussion responses, and he indicated that he simply confirmed that offerors had responded to the issues and that the SSEB did not “express any further concerns” about the responses. The only discussion response mentioned in the evaluation record is Labat’s response to a discussion question concerning its lack of corrections experience, which was identified as a proposal weakness in the initial evaluation. The source selection decision states that Labat addressed the agency’s concern about experience during discussions by proposing to hire and train staff to satisfy their lack of experience. However, the agency does not explain how Labat’s hiring and training plan satisfies the agency’s concerns, which included not only that Labat lacked corrections experience, but also that Labat’s proposal did not address the unique corrections focus of the library collection or describe how Labat would provide corrections-specific services. Also, the agency does not explain how Labat’s experience compares to LIS’s under any of the relevant evaluation factors; for example, there is no discussion of how Labat, which has no experience performing library information services in a corrections context, compares to LIS, the incumbent with over 30 years of relevant experience.
The record is devoid of any meaningful proposal comparison under any of the evaluation factors, and the SSA confirmed that no comparative qualitative assessment of the proposals was documented. The source selection decision summarily concludes that both firms adequately addressed the requirements of the solicitation and that “nothing” in the proposals suggested that one proposal was superior to the other. In GAO’s view, this suggests that the agency may have improperly awarded the contract based on a low-cost-technically-acceptable award scheme and not a best-value award scheme, as is required by this RFP. Because the agency has not performed, or documented, a reasoned consideration of the relative merits of the proposals, we sustain the protest.
In addition, we sustain the protest because the record evidences that the SSEB and SSA weighted the evaluation factors in a manner that was inconsistent with the RFP. As noted above, the RFP announced that the technical approach factor was the most important evaluation factor, and that the combination of the non-price factors was significantly more important than price. Since the RFP was silent on the relative importance of the project organization and firm experience factor and past performance factor, the agency was required to assign equal weight to these two factors. However, rather than assigning these factors equal weight, the record shows that the agency assigned 15 points for the project organization and firm experience factor, and 25 points for the past performance factor. An agency cannot evaluate proposals inconsistent with the evaluation methodology stated in the RFP. The protest is sustained.