SSA vs. SSEB: Protest Sustained Where Ratings Changes Weren’t Reasonable

In a best value acquisition, the final decision is typically made by a Source Selection Authority. But what happens when the SSA disagrees with the ratings assigned by the evaluators, such as a Source Selection Evaluation Board?

The SSA has a good deal of discretion, but that discretion isn’t unlimited. In a recent decision, GAO sustained a protest where the SSA’s disagreements with the SSEB didn’t appear to be reasonable. 

Immersion Consulting, LLC, B-415155 et al. (Dec. 4, 2017) involved the procurement of program management support services by the Department of Defense’s Defense Human Resources Activity. Proposals were to be evaluated on three factors: technical, past performance, and price. Technical approach was the most important factor, followed by past performance, then price. Award was to be made on a best value basis.

Immersion and NetImpact Strategies, Inc. were the only offerors to timely submit proposals in response to the Solicitation.

In accordance with the Solicitation’s evaluation plan, each company’s proposal was first evaluated by an SSEB. The SSEB awarded Immersion’s proposal three strengths, resulting in an overall technical score of Outstanding. NetImpact’s proposal received two strengths and one weakness, resulting in an overall rating of Acceptable under the technical factor. Immersion and NetImpact’s proposals were evaluated as equal under the past performance factor, and NetImpact offered a lower price.

The SSEB’s report was then passed off to the SSA, who was to make the final award decision. After reviewing the SSEB’s findings, the SSA determined strengths and weaknesses should be allocated differently.

With respect to Immersion’s Proposal, the SSA agreed with only one of the SSEB’s three assessed strengths. He removed the other two. Similarly, with regard to NetImpact’s proposal, the SSA did not agree with one of the strengths or the weakness identified by the SSEB. These scores were also eliminated. After the SSA’s reevalation, both proposals were scored as Acceptable under the technical factor.

Since both Immersion and NetImpact’s proposals were determined to be equal with regard to the technical and past performance factors, price became the determining factor. Because NetImpact proposed a lower price, it was named the awardee.

Following the award announcement, Immersion filed a protest with GAO, arguing that the SSA’s independent analysis was flawed. The DoD countered that the SSA had properly documented his revaluation and that the award was proper.

In resolving the protest, GAO noted that “[a]lthough source selection officials may reasonably disagree with the ratings and recommendations of lower-level evaluators, they are nonetheless bound by the fundamental requirement that their independent judgments must be reasonable, consistent with the provisions of the solicitation, and adequately documented.” According to GAO, the SSA did not meet that burden.

GAO first concluded that the record didn’t support the SSA’s removal of the weakness from NetImpact’s evaluation. The SSA removed the weakness because he “was not convinced” the errors in the NetImpact’s proposal would negatively impact its performance. GAO was unable to determine what the SSA relied on in making this determination. Indeed, GAO found “[t]here is nothing in the contemporaneous record or the agency’s filings documenting what, if anything, the SSA reviewed to support the SSA’s conclusion[.]” Further, there was no evidence that “the SSA discussed the SSEB’s concern with the SSEB.” Without any contemporaneous justification, it was unreasonable for the SSA to remove the weakness.

GAO similarly found the SSA’s removal of one of Immersion’s strengths to be unreasonable. According to the SSA, it felt the SSEB’s comments awarding the strength to Immersion were “too general and did not specify how the approach exceeded the [solicitation] requirements.” In GAO’s opinion, however, “the SSEB’s comments were specific and identified the impact of the approach on the quotation, as well as how the approach benefited the government.” As such, GAO found the removal of the strength from Immersion’s proposal to be unreasonable.

Finally, since the SSA’s changes to each company’s technical ratings had technically leveled proposals leaving only price to be the determining factor, GAO concluded that the underlying best value source selection decision was flawed. Accordingly, GAO recommended the agency reevaluate proposals and make a new award decision.

As GAO’s decision in Immersion Consulting demonstrates, SSA officials may not unilaterally take it upon themselves to rewrite evaluations without appropriate justification. While GAO’s decision does not alter the fact that SSAs enjoy considerable discretion, it does demonstrate that the SSA’s discretion isn’t unlimited.