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by Vernon J. Edwards

The Nash & Cibinic Report

Courtesy of Thompson Reuters

Published with permission of the author

The Federal Acquisition Regulation does not define strength.  A definition of weakness was added to the FAR by the FAR Part 15 Rewrite, Federal Acquisition Circular 97-02, 62 Fed. Reg. 51224, 51233 (Sept. 30, 1997). FAR 15.001 thus defines weakness:

“Weakness” means a flaw in the proposal that increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance. A “significant weakness” in the proposal is a flaw that appreciably increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance.

So a weakness is a “flaw,” which the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH defines as “a mark, blemish, or other imperfection which mars a substance or object.” That clears things up. And thus we suppose that a strength is a perfection that reduces risk and a significant strength is one that reduces risk appreciably.

FAR 15.001 also defines deficiency:

“Deficiency” is a material failure of a proposal to meet a Government requirement or a combination of significant weaknesses in a proposal that increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance to an unacceptable level.

That definition, also added by the FAR Part 15 Rewrite, replaced the definition that had been in FAR 15.601, which was:

Deficiency, as used in this subpart, means any part of a proposal that fails to satisfy the Government’s requirements.

The new definition muddied up that simpler definition by adding the phrase “a combination of significant weaknesses,” which raises all kinds of questions.  (One could base a Master’s thesis or perhaps even a Ph.D. dissertation on the crummy definitions in the FAR.)  (November 2021)

Please Read:  Postscript: Source Selection Decisions.

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“A key rule about strengths, weaknesses, and deficiencies appears in FAR 15.305(a): ‘The relative strengths, deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and risks supporting proposal evaluation shall be documented in the contract file.’ That is the only mention of strengths in FAR Part 15. (Read that rule again and see if it makes sense to you upon reflection. Do strengths, weaknesses, and deficiencies ‘support’ proposal evaluations, or are they evaluation findings that must be supported?)”

Without a standard in the SSP, SSAs and source selection board members tend to stack up one proposal’s strengths against another proposal’s strengths, cancel a few out through identification of weaknesses, and then declare a winner by evidence of the numbers in a table displaying total S vs. W.  They behave like this naturally.  I wonder if it is just something inherent in our intuitive, system 1* thinking.  The brain’s intuition is good for decision-making in response to repetitive stimuli, like when driving a car, but for decision-making in response to receipt of voluminous proposals every 5 years, that system of thought is not so useful.  Establishing tailored standards for adjectival ratings before receipt of proposals is a good way to chart a course through proposals instead, but it is involved, and, without the informed CO’s insistence, doesn't happen.  We owe it to our trade to insist the evaluators engage more than their intuition, and invest deep thought into the setting of standards for ratings, before they attempt to navigate through “The Proposal Ocean”.

*See Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011

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