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  • Vern Edwards

    Warning To Proposal Writers (and Agency Evaluators)

    By Vern Edwards

    All proposal managers and writers should read a recent GAO bid protest decision: CR/SWS LLC, GAO B-414766.2, Sept. 13, 2017. In that case the agency was buying a commercial item--integrated solid waste management services at an Air Force base. The solicitation required offerors to submit a “technical proposal” that was to consist entirely of a “Mission Essential Contractor Services Plan” (MECSP). The proposal preparation instructions said:  That’s it. There were no supplemental instructions and no formatting or page limitations. The solicitation said that the agency would evaluate proposals and select a contractor in a series of steps. The first step would be to evaluate the technical proposal (the Mission Essential Contractor Services Plan) for acceptability on a pass or fail basis. It said: and  The solicitation defined acceptable and unacceptable as follows:   The solicitation said that only those offerors whose technical proposals (the Plan) were determined to be acceptable would move on to the next phase of the evaluation, which would entail a past performance/price tradeoff analysis and decision. The solicitation said that the agency planned to award without discussions. Here is the text of DFARS 252.237-7024:  Note that despite the capital letter at the beginning of each subparagraph, paragraph (b) is one long sentence.  (Whether such a requirement was properly imposed in an acquisition of commercial item solid waste management services is a matter that I will not address in this blogpost.) The agency rated both the successful offeror’s and the protester’s plans to be acceptable. The successful offeror’s plan was less than two pages long. The protester’s plan was 14 pages long. The successful offeror won based on its lower price and past performance rating of “satisfactory confidence”. The protester, which had a higher price but a better past performance rating, complained that the successful offeror’s plan did not address all the topics required by DFARS 252.237.7024 paragraphs (b)(2)(ii) and (b)(2)(iii), “time lapses” and “training issues”. The GAO agreed, sustained the protest, and recommended that the agency either reject the successful offeror’s proposal or conduct discussions, solicit revised proposals, and make a new source selection decision. It also recommended that the agency reimburse the protester’s costs of filing and pursuing the protest. Yes, the agency was dumb. It did not take its own proposal preparation requirement seriously or plan its evaluation carefully. But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point of this blog post is that proposal managers and writers better pay close attention when reading and complying with proposal preparation instructions. They better dissect each and every sentence and phrase and identify each and every submission requirement. Details matter. Now, look back at DFARS 252.237.7024 paragraph (b)(2), which specifies the topics that a Mission Essential Contractor Services Plan must “address”. How many are there? At first glance, there are five, specified in subparagraphs (i) through (v). But, in fact, there are many more than five. Here is my phrase-by-phrase analysis of what DFARS 252.237.7024, paragraph (b)(2), requires offerors to “address”; 1.    challenges associated with maintaining essential contractor services during an extended event;  2.    time lapse associated with: 2.1. the initiation of the acquisition of essential personnel 2.2. the initiation of the acquisition of essential resources 2.3. the actual availability of essential personnel on site; 2.4. the actual availability of essential resources on site;  3.    components for: 3.1. identification of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 3.2. identification of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 3.3. training of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 3.4. training of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 3.5. preparedness of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 3.6. preparedness of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 4.    processes for: 4.1. identification of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 4.2. identification of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 4.3. training of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 4.4. training of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 4.5. preparedness of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 4.6. preparedness of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 5.    requirements for: 5.1. identification of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 5.2. identification of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 5.3. training of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 5.4. training of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 5.5. preparedness of personnel who are capable of relocating to alternate facilities 5.6. preparedness of personnel who are capable of performing work from home 6.    any established alert procedures for mobilizing identified “essential contractor service” personnel 7.    any established notification procedures for mobilizing identified “essential contractor service” personnel 8.    approach for: 8.1. communicating expectations to contractor employees regarding their roles during a crisis.  8.2. communicating expectations to contractor employees regarding their responsibilities during a crisis.  By my count there are 27 planning topics to be addressed, not just five. (By the way, what’s in a “plan”? Some persons would think that a plan specifies who, what, when, where, and how.) My kind of analysis might accomplish three things. First, it will ensure that your proposal addresses each and every proposal preparation requirement. Agency personnel are not always aware of just what their proposal preparation instructions require of offerors. Read the convoluted instructions in some of the RFPs floating around out there. Read the sentences. There can be a lot of hidden eddies in bureaucratic stream-of-consciousness writing, as the Air Force learned in CR/SWS LLC. Second, it might alert complacent agency evaluators as to what they should be looking for in all proposals. This will give you a leg up if the competition has not been as thorough as you. Third, if you lose, it might give your attorney a basis for assessing whether the agency adhered to its evaluation criteria and ammunition for a protest, as it did in CR/SWS LLC. The protester was more conscientious than both its competitor and the agency, and so it won. Did the Department of Defense really intend for offerors to plan mission-essential contractor services in great detail? Was it practical to ask offerors to do so before contract award, i.e., before they understood what performance would actually be like on the Air Force base? What did the agency really want and expect from offerors? Who knows? It did not matter. Neither the agency nor the successful offeror took the proposal preparation instructions seriously, and it cost them. As for you agency personnel--you better think when you write proposal preparation instructions, and you better read what you’ve written when you plan your evaluations, and you better take what you’ve written seriously. And you better supplement and explain lousy boilerplate instructions like those in DFARS 252.237-7024. I assume that the Air Force will do as the GAO recommended: conduct discussions, seek proposal revisions, and make a new source selection decision. I wonder if it will supplement and clarify DFARS 252.237-7024. I wonder how comprehensive and how long the offerors’ Mission-Essential Contractor Services Plans will be in the second go-round.
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