When it comes to adjectival ratings assigned to proposals during a source selection, a very recent protest decision serves as a reminder that contracting agencies must document with specificity why they are selecting one offeror over another when both have been assigned identical adjectival ratings. In other words, when offerors receive identical adjectival ratings and the contemporaneous agency record fails to identify or explain any of the superior capabilities or features of the awardee’s proposal, that agency’s tradeoff decision may be invalidated, if challenged in a timely protest. Published on August 10, 2021, Alpha Omega Integration, LLC B-419812, B-419812.2, is a decision worth a closer look because it sustains a protest where an agency source selection official just didn’t go far enough in documenting the tradeoff decision.
On February 3, 2021, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a solicitation to recompete USDA Enterprise Application Systems (EAS) Information Technology Support Services contract. The awardee would provide contract personnel to support the EAS staff in providing professional information technology services to the agency. The USDA’s solicitation contemplated a fixed-price, labor-hour task order under the CIO-SP3 Small Business Governmentwide Acquisition Contract (GWAC) for one base year and four one-year option periods.
The USDA received eight quotations in response to its solicitation, including quotations from Alpha Omega Integration, LLC (Alpha Omega) and Synergy Business Innovation & Solutions, Inc. (Synergy). The source selection team first evaluated the vendors’ past performance, and invited three of the eight vendors to proceed to Phase 2. The remaining three vendors in Phase 2 included Alpha Omega, Synergy, and one other vendor. Alpha Omega and Synergy were determined to be the two lowest-priced vendors. Ultimately, the USDA recommended award to Synergy, priced $586,211.58 higher than the next lowest price, which Alpha Omega submitted.
Protest: inadequate record of basis for award
Alpha Omega protested the task order award to Synergy arguing that the USDA’s decision was arbitrary and unreasonable because the record lacked sufficient evidence that the agency performed a qualitative and comparative assessment of the two quotations. More specifically, Alpha Omega argued that agency failed to explain its tradeoff decision and what capabilities in Synergy’s quotation warranted paying a price premium. The GAO agreed. Citing to FAR 16.505(b)(7), the GAO explained that agencies are required to document not only the basis for award, but also the rationale for any tradeoffs among cost or price and non-cost considerations in making the award decision. Based on the information in the record, the GAO determined that there was insufficient contemporaneous documentation explaining the agency’s rationale to support the award decision. Further, the GAO concluded that, in light of the inadequacy of record, the USDA failed to conduct an adequate tradeoff and that that failure competitively prejudiced Alpha Omega in light of its quotation having the lowest evaluated price.
Importantly, the GAO found the decision memorandum to lack the requisite substantive discussion of the specific qualities of Alpha Omega’s and Synergy’s quotations in relation to one another. Notably, the GAO rejected the agency’s contention that Synergy’s “technical expertise” and “unique innovative processes” were a sufficient basis for an adequate tradeoff decision. Based on the record, the source selection decision memorandum, in the GAO’s opinion, failed to identify with any specificity, or substantively discuss, the superior capabilities or features of Synergy’s quotation that would justify the payment of a price premium.
The GAO ultimately recommended that the USDA conduct and properly document a new best-value tradeoff analysis. They also recommended that Alpha Omega be reimbursed for costs related to filing and pursuing the protest, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.
There are three main takeaways for contractors to note. First, this decision serves as an important reminder that even a proper tradeoff decision will be viewed as inadequate if it fails to provide a rational explanation of why a quotation’s evaluated technical superiority warrants paying a price premium. Here, the problem wasn’t necessarily that the tradeoff decision was wrong. Rather, the GAO lacked the ability to conclude that the contracting officer’s decision was reasonable due to inadequate contemporaneous documentation. Second, while ratings are important for a successful task order competition, they merely serve as guides for source selection authority in making an award decision. Third, the GAO will review a source selection decision to determine not only whether the source selection authority independently reviewed the quotations, but also whether the agency conducted a qualitative comparison of the quotations and adequately documented the rationale supporting its ultimate award decision. This is particularly important when the award decision results in an additional cost to the government (i.e., is not the lowest possible quotation). Contractors that question the sufficiency and adequacy of the source selection record with which they are involved may find redress with the GAO, as did Alpha Omega in this instance.