Government References Didn’t Complete PPQs? “Too Bad,” Says GAO

Federal contractors frequently find themselves in the position of needing to establish their past performance credentials to secure future contracts – the government’s form of a reference check. The government often performs these reference checks by requesting completed past performance questionnaires, or PPQs, which the government uses as an indicator of the offeror’s ability to perform a future contract.

But what happens when a contractor’s government point of contact fails to return a completed PPQ? As a recent GAO decision demonstrates, if the solicitation requires offerors to return completed PPQs, the agency need not independently reach out to government officials who fail to complete those PPQs.

By way of background, FAR 15.304(c)(3)(i) requires a procuring agency to evaluate past performance in all source selections for negotiated competitive acquisitions expected to exceed the simplified acquisition threshold. The government has many means at its disposal to gather past performance information, such as by considering information provided by the offeror in its proposal, and checking the Contractor Performance Assessment Reports System, commonly known as CPARS.

PPQs are one popular means of obtaining past performance information. A PPQ is a form given to a contracting officer or other official familiar with a particular offeror’s performance on a prior project. The official in question is supposed to complete the PPQ and return it–either to the offeror (for inclusion in the proposal) or directly to the procuring agency. Among other advantages, completed PPQs can allow the agency to solicit candid feedback on aspects of the offeror’s performance that may not be covered in CPARS.

But the potential downside of PPQs is striking: the FAR contains no requirement that a contracting official respond to an offeror’s request for completion of a PPQ or similar document within a specific period (or at all). Contracting officials are busy people, and PPQ requests can easily fall to the bottom of a particular official’s “to-do” list. And procuring agencies sometimes contribute to the problem by developing lengthy PPQs that can be quite time-consuming to complete. For example, in a Google search for “past performance questionnaire,” the first result (as of the date of this blog post) is a NASA PPQ clocking in at 45 questions over 11 pages. A lengthy, complex PPQ like that one almost begs the busy recipient to ignore it.

That brings us to the recent GAO bid protest, Genesis Design and Development, Inc., B-414254 (Feb. 28, 2017). In Genesis Design, GAO denied a protest challenging the rejection of an offeror’s proposal where the offeror failed to adhere to the terms of the solicitation requiring offerors to submit three PPQs completed by previous customers.

The protest involved the National Park Service’s request for the design and construction of an accessible parking area and ramp at the Alamo Canyon Campground in Ajo, Arizona. The solicitation required offerors to provide three completed PPQs from previous customers to demonstrate that the offerors had successfully completed all tasks related to the solicitation requirements. The solicitation provided the Park Service with discretion to eliminate proposals lacking sufficient information for a meaningful review. The Park Service was to award the contract to the lowest-priced, technically acceptable offeror.

Genesis Design and Development, Inc. submitted a proposal. However, the PPQs Genesis provided with its proposal had not been completed by Genesis’ prior customers. Instead, the PPQs merely provided the contact information of the prior customers, so that the Park Service could contact those customers directly.

The Park Service found Genesis’ proposal was technically unacceptable, because Genesis failed to include completed PPQs. The Park Service eliminated Genesis from the competition and awarded the contract to a competitor.

Genesis filed a GAO bid protest challenging its elimination. Genesis conceded that the PPQs had not been completed by its past customers, but stated that it “reasonably anticipated that the agency would seek the required information directly from its clients.” Genesis contended that it “is often difficult to obtain such information from its clients because they are often too busy to respond in the absence of an inquiry directly from the acquiring activity.”

GAO wrote that “an offeror is responsible for submitting an adequately written proposal and bears the risk that the agency will find its proposal unacceptable where it fails to demonstrate compliance with all of a solicitation’s requirements.” Here, “the RFP specifically required offerors to submit completed PPQs,” but “Genesis did not comply with the solicitation’s express requirements.” Accordingly, “the agency reasonably rejected Genesis’ proposal.” GAO denied Genesis’ protest.

GAO’s decision in Genesis Design should serve as an important warning for offerors: where the terms of a solicitation require an offeror to return completed PPQs from its previous customers, the offeror cannot assume the procuring agency will contact the customers on the offeror’s behalf. Instead, it is up to the offeror to obtain completed PPQs.

In our view here at SmallGovCon, the Genesis Design decision, and other cases like it, reflect a need for a FAR update. After all, Genesis was exactly right: contracting officers are sometimes too busy to prioritize responding to PPQs. It doesn’t make good policy sense for the results of a competitive acquisition to hinge on whether a particular offeror is lucky enough to have its customers return its PPQs, instead of on the merits of that offeror’s underlying past performance.

Policymakers could address this problem in several ways, such as by imposing a regulatory requirement for contracting officials to respond to PPQ requests in a timely fashion, or by prohibiting procuring officials from requiring that offerors be responsible for obtaining completed PPQs. Hopefully cases like Genesis Design will spur a regulatory change sometime down the road. For now, offerors bidding on solicitations requiring the completion of PPQs must live with the uncertainty of whether the government will reject the offeror’s proposal as technically unacceptable due to the government’s failure to complete a PPQ in a timely manner.