GAO: Proposal Strengths Must be Based on Solicitation Criteria, Not Merely Benefit to Government

Agencies often find unanticipated, innovative content in offerors’ proposals. And unsurprisingly, those proposals are often the ones selected for award. But a recent GAO decision reminds us that all strengths an agency assigns must be supported by the stated evaluation criteria. In other words, the solicitation must thoroughly inform offerors of these evaluation criteria, and the agency must equally evaluate offerors under them. An offeror’s proposal should not get extra credit for proposing things that are not anticipated by or logically encompassed in the solicitation.

GAO’s decision in Info. Int’l Assocs., Inc., B-416826.2 (2019), surrounded the Homeland Defense and Security Information Analysis Center Basic Center Operations contract for the collection, analysis, synthesizing/processing, and dissemination of scientific and technical information. The Department of the Air Force issued a solicitation seeking proposals for the award of a single cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to the proposal offering the best value to the government, considering past performance, technical, and cost.

The Air Force found the awardee’s proposal to represent the best value as it was “slightly superior technically” and slightly cheaper than the protester’s. The protester challenged the Air Force’s technical and ultimate source selection decision. With regards to the technical evaluation, in part, challenged the awardee’s assigned strength for its proposed “cloud-compatible HDIAC website.”

GAO first reviewed the strength assigned to the awardee’s technical proposal “for a cloud compatible HDIAC website running on the first day of the contract, which would provide added benefit to the government as it executes its strategy of moving all public-facing websites to a cloud environment.” Essentially, the Air Force found a strength in the awardee’s proposed approach to this one HDIAC website because it utilized cloud-based technology, and the government hopes to apply cloud-based technology to all of its public websites at some point in the future.

But there was nothing in the solicitation anticipating or favoring cloud-based technology for this website. And the protester asserted that the “nature of the website hosting is completely irrelevant to HDAIC users and equally irrelevant to the content maintained on the website,” and the solicitation “gave no indication that the contractor would be evaluated on where the website was hosted.”

In reaching its decision on the first protest ground, GAO set forth the following standard:

Agencies are required to evaluate proposals based solely on the factors identified in the solicitation, and must adequately document the bases for their evaluation conclusions.  While agencies properly may apply evaluation considerations that are not expressly outlined in the RFP where those considerations are reasonably and logically encompassed within the stated evaluation criteria, there must be a clear nexus between the stated criteria and the unstated consideration. 

GAO further explained:

The reasonableness of the award of any strength is whether the benefit identified by the agency is reasonably and logically encompassed by the announced evaluation criteria. In other words, would an offeror–knowing that the agency required a website on which to publish information–reasonably have anticipated that the government would reward offerors for proposing to assist with moving other public-facing websites to a cloud environment.

GAO then reviewed the assigned strength under the solicitation’s stated criteria, finding that “[t]he agency requirement here was for a contractor-provided website to disseminate journals and other publications, calendar of events, databases, and the like to the HDIAC user community.” GAO acknowledged the reasonableness of “the agency’s assertion that there is a benefit to the agency from having the HDIAC website be cloud compatible.” But GAO explained:

We find little relationship, however, between the RFP’s stated requirement for a website and the agency’s contention that it could also receive a benefit by leveraging [the awardee]’s expertise to gain efficiencies in moving other BCO websites to a Cloud environment. . . [T]he RFP cannot reasonably be read as soliciting expertise in cloud migration. In our view, the skills and experience required to assist with the transfer of other websites to the cloud is materially different from what is required here-for the contractor to develop and maintain an agency website with useful professional material. As such, we find the agency’s reliance on this perceived benefit to be unreasonable.

Further, the Air Force also based this assigned strength on the awardee’s assertion that it would have the required HDIAC website running by day one. But as GAO pointed out, the “requirement was not for a preliminary website with basic functionality”; it was for a “fully functioning website.” As such, GAO found that the awardee had actually been assigned “a strength for providing less than the minimum RFP requirement,” which was found to be further unreasonable. GAO sustained the protest on this basis.

GAO has long relied on the standards that require agency evaluations, and any strengths and weaknesses assigned in those evaluations, to be based on the solicitation’s requirements or logically encompassed within them. But GAO also affords agencies wide discretion in establishing their contracting needs and in determining the best ways to meet those needs. This sometimes results in a blurry line between those strengths supported by the solicitation and those that the agency merely finds beneficial to government business and strategy. This GAO decision helps to more clearly define that line for contractors and agencies alike.