A solicitation’s evaluation criteria are tremendously important. Not only must offerors understand and comply with those criteria in order to have a chance at being awarded the contract, but the agency must abide by them too. Where an agency does not, it risks that a protest challenging the application of an unstated evaluation criteria will be sustained.
So it was in Phoenix Air Group, Inc., B-412796.2 et al. (Sept. 26, 2016), a recent GAO decision sustaining a protest where the protester’s proposal was unreasonably evaluated under evaluation criteria not specified in the solicitation.
At issue in Phoenix Air Group was a Department of the Interior solicitation seeking commercial electronic warfare aircraft test and evaluation services for the Department of the Navy, at various locations throughout the United States. Under the solicitation, the successful offeror was to provide the turbo-jet aircraft, flight and ground crews, and electronic technicians needed to conduct flight operations consistent with military standards in the form the electronic warfare testing missions under a single IDIQ contract.
Sections A and B of the solicitation provided detailed technical requirements for the scope of work. Together, these sections required offerors to propose at least five specifically-identified aircraft that would accommodate specific modifications to allow them to tow certain equipment behind them and meet several stated performance aspects.
Evaluations would be conducted under a two-step approach. First, proposals would be reviewed for acceptability—basically, to make sure that the offeror had assented to the solicitation’s terms, provided all information requested, had not taken exception to requirements, and proposed aircraft that met the minimum aircraft requirements. For those proposals deemed technically acceptable, Interior would then conduct a best value tradeoff evaluation of each offer’s capability and its total evaluated price.
The offeror capability evaluation was based on three subfactors, the most important of which (and the one pertinent for this post) was the aircraft operations capability subfactor. Under the solicitation, Interior was to assess this subfactor for “the performance risk associated with an offeror’s capability to perform the commercial aircraft services” described in Sections A and B.
Interior’s evaluators established a go/no-go checklist for assessing compliance with Sections A and B. The evaluators then assigned Phoenix Air Group several weaknesses and two deficiencies, relating to its failure to submit a property management plan and include weight and balance checks performed on its submitted aircraft information forms. Interior awarded the contract to one of Phoenix Air’s competitors.
Phoenix Air protested the evaluation and award, arguing (among other things) that the aircraft operations capability evaluation relied on unstated evaluation criteria. Phoenix Air said that the solicitation “instructed offerors to discuss general topics such as ‘overall management, maintenance, and pilot capabilities,’ ‘plans for conducting the flight services,’ and their ‘capability to provide the required storage and maintenance of Government furnished property.’” Phoenix Air’s proposal met all of these requirements by providing general narratives as to each. But instead of following this evaluation criteria, Interior graded proposals based on their “specific commitments to particular specifications, such as whether the proposal contained a property management plan, and whether the offeror responded to each of over 100 specification requirements in RFP Sections A and B.”
GAO wrote that “[a]n agency may properly evaluation considerations that are not expressly identified in the RFP if those considerations are reasonably and logically encompassed within the stated evaluation criteria, so long as there is a clear nexus linking them.” However, “an agency may not give importance to specific factors, subfactors or criteria beyond that which would reasonably be expected by offerors reviewing the stated evaluation criteria.”
Deciding that the evaluation departed from the solicitation’s evaluation criteria, GAO said that “[w]e do not think that a reasonable offeror should have understood from the stated evaluation criteria, or from the information requested in the offeror capability form, that specific responses to each of the specifications in RFP Sections A and B and a property management plan were important proposal elements.” Because Interior’s application of these unstated evaluation criteria significantly lowered Phoenix Air’s score, the GAO sustained Phoenix Air’s protest.
Complying with a solicitation’s stated evaluation criteria is critical, for both offerors and the agency. And as Phoenix Air Group shows, an agency’s unreasonable departure from those criteria can lead to a sustained protest.