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There's so much we have to know.

Posted by Vern Edwards, 30 August 2010 · 5,356 views

Reading some of the Wifcon posts of last week, it occurred to me that a lot of people are busily doing things that they don?t know much about. That has occurred to me many times over the years, but this past week has been an especially ignorance-rich environment.

Some of us at Wifcon Forum talk by phone among ourselves about posts, and we are often astonished that people who are asking really basic (not dumb) questions are apparently in the very middle of doing something and don?t realize that their question shows that they know even less than they think they do. It is not the fact that they are asking a question that troubles me⎯everybody has to ask questions, myself included⎯it is the nature of the question asked.

I am not surprised that people do not know the rules, meaning FAR and its progeny: the supplements, handbooks, manuals, and policy statements, which is not to say that it is okay that they don?t. But much of the ignorance is of fundamental concepts. It is one thing when people do not know the rules about cost-reimbursement contracts, such as the rules of cost allowability, but it is another thing entirely when they do not understand the concept of the cost-reimbursement contract.

One poster asked if there is a rule against awarding a ?CPFF? contract with ?FFP? labor rates. The answer is no, there is no rule against it, but why would you do it? The inclusion of ceiling rates, in which the contractor is reimbursed either the ceiling rate or the actual amount paid, whichever is less, might make sense, but not ?firm-fixed-price? rates. Why not? A full understanding of the concepts of the cost-reimbursement contract and of firm-fixed-price contract should make it apparent that firm-fixed-price labor rates in a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract would be a bad business deal for the buyer, in much the same way as a time-and-materials contract is a bad business deal, but worse.

Last week someone asked me (not at Wifcon) why, in a source selection, a CO would include an unacceptable proposal in the competitive range. The question revealed ignorance of the concepts of acceptability, competitive range, and discussions in source selection. The problem was that the person who asked the question was not aware of their ignorance of those concepts, and it was the person?s very unawareness of their ignorance that caused the matter to seem paradoxical.

Conceptual ignorance is undoubtedly due in part to (1) poor quality training and (2) a shortage of knowledgeable people in the office. But it is also due to lack of study and thought.

If a person worked for me conducting source selections, I would expect them to know FAR Part 15, except Subpart 15.6, like the back of their hand, as well as the agency supplement, handbooks, manuals, and policy issuances, and to be able to quote them chapter and verse. I would also expect them to have read, at the very least, Chapter 6, Basic Negotiation Procedures, of Formation of Government Contracts, 3d ed., and any other relevant explanatory material they can get their hands on. But none of that knowledge would be any good without complete understanding of fundamental concepts: evaluation, evaluation factor, scales and scaling, score/rating, acceptability, tradeoff, rank ordering, competitive range, clarification, and discussion.

A conceptual understanding of the term evaluation factor is knowledge of what an evaluation factor is -- the essential nature of such a factor. A person who understands that concept can tell you what all evaluation factors have in common. If asked, What is an evaluation factor?, she would not just give examples, like soundness of approach, past performance, price, qualifications of key personnel. Instead, he would say something like:

An evaluation factor is an attribute of an offeror or of an offeror's promises--a feature, quality, or characteristic that contributes in some way to the value of the offeror or offer to the buyer and thus can serve as a basis for the comparison of competing offerors and their offers. Evaluation factors can be positive or negative. A positive factor is an attribute that is desired, such that the more of it there is the greater the value. In some procurements, the durability of an offered product is a positive factor. The greater the durability of an infantry rifle the greater the value. A negative factor is an undesirable attribute, such that the more of it there is the lesser the value. The weight of a rifle would be a negative factor. The greater the weight of a rifle the lesser its value. Evaluation factors can be assessed and rated or scored on a variable scale or on a pass/fail scale.

A person who has that conceptual understanding of evaluation factor is ready to learn the rules about evaluation factors and to select evaluation factors for an acquisition.

People often refer to contracting folk at the GS-11 through GS-13 level as journeymen. Webster?s Third New International Dictionary defines journeyman as follows:

1 a : a worker who has learned a handicraft or trade and is qualified to work at it usually for another by the day -- distinguished from apprentice and master b : an experienced usually competent or reliable workman in any field usually as distinguished from one that is brilliant or colorful? competent but without much distinction? .

I do not expect every journeyman involved in a source selection to be a master at it. I expect that from contracting officers. But I expect journeymen to know what they are doing and what they are talking about.

As for trainees (apprentices)--well, they must be trained. Training entails more than telling them to prepare some documents and giving them old ones from which to cut and paste. Training does not have to include classroom instruction, but it should include having a knowledgeable person direct the trainee's reading and explain things to them in some depth. Of course, there must be someone in the office who is capable of that, which I suspect is often not the case.

Ignorance happens, and it?s not necessarily a crime, but it is a bad thing and always the fault of the ignorant, as in the song ?Father and Son,? by Cat Stevens (now called Yusuf Islam):

You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to know.

When I first heard that line, many years ago, I didn?t get it. How could youth and youthful ignorance be the youth?s fault? But now I understand that each of us is responsible for knowing what we need to know. It?s true that others ought to teach us, but in the end we are the ones who have to know, which means we have to get out there and learn, whether anyone teaches us or not.

I?m not young, but there is still so much I have to know about the contracting business, and I?m mad at myself whenever I realize that I don?t know it, which happens almost every day. I feel embarrassed and a little sick, and I mope. Then I go find out. What else can we do?

Cat Stevens didn't mean it's the boy's fault that the boy's young. He was saying, "You're still young, THAT'S your fault ...". THAT's his problem, THAT's his flaw. Not that he's stupid, not that he's lazy, not that he's inadequate. That he's young, inexperienced - ignorant, as in unknowing. It's not a judgement, it's a call, to take the time to gain knowledge and experience. "I was once as you are now and I know that it's not easy...". You're really quite brilliant and articulate, but do you blog to help the apprentices become journeymen and the journeymen to become masters? Or do you blog to admire your own turn of phrase and deplore those who are trying to mitigate their ignorance through your wisdom?
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Gee, I didn't think I said what you seem to think I said. Apparently, I wasn't articulate enough to get my point across the way I meant to. But for you to suggest that I "deplore" those who are trying to "mitigate their ignorance" really is an absurd misreading. If I deplore anything, it's ignorance, especially my own, but not the ignorant, unless they are willfully so. Goodness gracious!
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Mr. Edwards: thank you for your service to the acquisition community.

In your italicized passage, I challenge some of your points, and I take issue with this final statement.

Evaluation factors can be assessed and rated or scored on a variable scale or on a pass/fail scale.

I accept that ?assessments? are rated or scored against a variable [graduated in some manner] scale, but ?analysis? yields the pass/fail determination.

?Assessment? and ?analysis? are separate.

Assessment = scale; analysis = pass/fail or similar determination.

Price or cost is generally done as an analysis, to determine if the price or cost is, or if the price or cost is not, reasonable - legal - computable - and so on. To do an ?assessment? of price or cost would require some scale against which to bounce the price or cost. FAR Part 15.404 uses the term ?analysis? or ?analyses?; it does not use the term ?assessment?.

Past Performance can be an evaluation factor by which both an assessment and an analysis can be performed. Other evaluation factors can similarly be constructed.

Barry sends
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Mr. Edwards, could you change

An evaluation factor is [used to examine] an attribute of an offeror or of an offeror's promises

or similar ... The eval factor is NOT an attribute of an offeror's promise, but that by which the customer measures the offeror's promise.

Also, you do not give the critical distinction between 'benefit' & 'impact'; strength & weakness; 'positive' & 'negative'.

The customer or evaluator cannot assign a benefit - strength - positive to the offeror?s promise unless assigning such a benefit - strength - positive is clear in the solicitation. There must be an evaluation factor or element to which the benefit - strength - positive can be assigned.

However, an impact - weakness - negative CAN be assigned, even absent a clearly identified evaluation factor or element.

Barry sends
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Mr. Edwards,

?Last week someone asked me (not at Wifcon) why, in a source selection, a CO would include an unacceptable proposal in the competitive range.?

FAR Part 15. 306© (1) says, in part: the contracting officer shall establish a competitive range comprised of all of the most highly rated proposals,

If the ?most highly rated proposal? is at a level of ?unacceptable?, then that proposal will be included in the competitive range, with all the other ?unacceptable? proposals. In this case, we are saying that there is no acceptable proposal!

Question: Would this require that all non-responsible offerors also be included in the competitive range?
Answer: No, this competitive range is only concerning the PROPOSALS, not the Offeror [the firm] itself. The Offeror [the firm] is often considered 'unacceptable' if it is judged to be ineligible, IAW definition of FAR Part 2.101. An Offeror is considered 'ineligible'; an offeror's promise is considered [with respect give to the FAR definition of 'ineligible'] 'not eligible'.

Question: If the non-responsible Offeror had an acceptable proposal, would this make a competitive range of purely unacceptable proposals impossible, since all the most highly rated proposals cannot be included?
Answer: No. FAR Part 15.306 © (2) has a basis in (10 U.S.C. 2305(cool.gif(4) and 41 U.S.C. 253b(d)).

? 2305. Contracts: planning, solicitation, evaluation, and award procedures

(4)(A) The head of an agency shall evaluate competitive proposals in accordance with paragraph (1) and may award a contract?
(i) after discussions with the offerors, provided that written or oral discussions have been conducted with all responsible offerors who submit proposals within the competitive range; or

? 253b. Evaluation and award

(d) Discussions with offerors; written notification

(1) An executive agency shall evaluate competitive proposals in accordance with subsection

(a) of this section and may award a contract?
(A) after discussions with the offerors, provided that written or oral discussions have been conducted with all responsible offerors who submit proposals within the competitive range;

The question may have reflected some understanding of the acquisition process.

Barry sends
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