OFPP: Effective Debriefings Reduce Protests

Debriefings play a vital role in the procurement process. When conducted fully and fairly, a debriefing provides an offeror with valuable insight into the strengths and shortcomings of its proposal, thus enabling the offeror to improve its offering under future solicitations. But when an agency provides only a perfunctory debriefing, the process can be virtually worthless–and may actually encourage an unsuccessful offeror to file a bid protest.

With this in mind, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy recently issued a memorandum that urges agencies to strengthen the debriefing process. In doing so, OFPP has encouraged agencies to adopt a debriefing guide that will help facilitate effective and efficient debriefings.

FAR 15.506, which governs the post-award debriefing process, provides only general guidance as to the information that must be included in a debriefing. Basically, agencies need only provide minimal information about the award decision, including the evaluation of a proposal’s significant weaknesses or deficiencies and a “summary of the rationale for award.” The FAR prohibits an agency from providing a point-by-point comparison of proposals, or any information that can be deemed as confidential, proprietary, or as a trade secret. Given these restrictions, and considering that agencies are often tasked with debriefing numerous offerors under a solicitation (including the awardee), debriefings can devolve into little more than a notation of the offeror’s score and the awardee’s price.

Written as part of its “myth-busting” series on issues under federal contracting, OFPP’s memorandum explains the importance of effective debriefings:

Debriefings offer multiple benefits. They help vendors better understand the weaknesses in their proposals so that they can make stronger offers on future procurements, which is especially important for small businesses as they seek to grow their positions in the marketplace. In addition to contributing to a potentially more competitive supplier base for future work, debriefings allow agencies to evaluate and improve their own processes.

Despite these benefits, agencies often skimp on the information provided to offerors in a debriefing by providing only the bare minimum required under the FAR. In doing so, an agency may assume that it is limiting its exposure to a post-award protest, by limiting the information (or ammunition) available to a potential protester. OFPP’s memorandum addresses this myth head-on:

[A]gencies that conduct quality debriefings have found a decreased tendency by their supplier base to pursue protests. Studies of the acquisition process have observed that protests may be filed to get information—information that could have been shared during a debriefing—about the agency’s award decision to reassure the contractor that the source selection was merit-based and conducted in an impartial manner.

Offerors—who spend a tremendous amount of time and money to prepare their proposals—are entitled to a debriefing that adequately explains the strengths and weaknesses of their effort and confirms that a fair selection occurred. But agencies are too often quick to limit the information provided in debriefings, in the misguided effort to limit potential protests. OFPP’s memorandum addresses this disconnect, by explaining that an effective debriefing actually tends to lower the risk of a protest.

In our experience, OFPP’s memorandum is spot-on. My colleagues and I frequently speak with clients who are very frustrated with the scant information provided in debriefings. Perception matters in government contracting, and cursory debriefings can appear disrespectful of the time and effort that an offeror puts into its proposal. Worse, bare-bones debriefings can give the impression that the agency has something to hide. In many cases in which we’ve been involved, the agency likely could have avoided a protest if it had provided a comprehensive debriefing. And on the flip side, we have seen many other cases in which a client was initially eager to protest, but changed its mind after a thorough debriefing.

As we recently noted, Congress has also required DoD to analyze and address the effect of the quality of a debriefing on the frequency of bid protests. Hopefully this requirement, together with OFPP’s memorandum, will encourage agencies to make the most of the debriefing process.

Update: OFPP’s memorandum can be found here, as part of the Obama Administration’s archives.