“Using” an Affiliate’s Past Performance: GAO Explains the Test

Contrary to a common misconception, an offeror is not automatically entitled to “use” the past performance of parent companies, sister companies or other corporate affiliates. So when can an offeror rely on the past performance of an affiliate in submitting a proposal?

A recent GAO opinion sheds some light on that question. Not meeting the GAO’s guidelines for describing the detailed involvement of the affiliate can have a harsh result—a sustained protest if award was made based on the affiliate’s past performance.

In Language Select LLPB-415097.2 (Nov 14, 2017), GAO considered the Social Security Administration’s issuance of a Federal Supply Schedule blanket purchase agreement to Cyracom International, Inc. for worldwide telephone interpreter services. The underlying Solicitation was based on best value, considering the factors of corporate experience (the most important factor), past performance, and evaluated price.

Under corporate experience, vendors were to provide a “complete and full description” of three contracts demonstrating the firm’s relevant experience and how these contracts were “similar in size, scope, and complexity to the RFQ requirement.”

Past performance ratings would be based on having each client from the three corporate experience contracts submit a completed past performance questionnaire form to SSA. SSA could contract the references and obtain past performance information from other sources. SSA would base its evaluation “‘in part’ by assessing the firm’s quality of service, its timeliness of performance, its management of personnel, and its business relations.”

About a month before the evaluation was finalized, SSA contacted Cyracom for an explanation of the relationship between it and another entity (the name was redacted in the opinion but was referred to as Cyracom Affiliate), because Cyracom had listed the Cyracom Affiliate’s name on the past performance contracts. 

Cyracom responded that Cyracom Affiliate was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cyracom, that “its services are provided and managed by the parent company,” and that Cyracom “uses its divisions ‘[Cyracom Affiliate]’ and ‘CyraCom’ for marketing to different industries.”

In evaluating the proposal of Language Select LLP, which was the incumbent contractor, SSA rated its corporate experience as “good.” For Language Select’s past performance, SSA reviewed FAPIIS/PPIRS information, past performance questionnaires, and SSA reports on incumbent performance. SSA identified one termination for cause from FEMA, and weighing this termination for cause against the multiple strengths, it assigned a “very good” rating for past performance.

For Cyracom, SSA assigned a “satisfactory” rating for the corporate experience factor, taking into account the similarities of the contracts submitted in terms of scope and complexity. However, SSA found weaknesses because the contracts were smaller than SSA’s requirement. For Cyracom’s past performance, SSA noted that each prior contract was identified as performed by Cyracom Affiliate, rather than Cyracom. SSA noted that Cyracom Affiliate was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cyracom and that its services were “provided and managed by the parent company.” There was one termination for cause in Cyracom’s past performance record, which the evaluation panel deemed a “minor problem.”

The summary of the adjectival ratings and prices were;

  • Language Select: Corporate Experience – Good, Past Performance – Very Good, Price $34.7 million.
  • Cyracom: Corporate Experience – Satisfactory, Past Performance – Very Good, Price $29.9 million.

Noting that the price difference of 13.65 percent outweighed the minimal risk of awarding to Cyracom, the contracting officer awarded the contract to Cyracom.

Language Select protested the award, arguing that the SSA engaged in unequal discussions when it asked Cyracom for its relationship to the Cyracom Affiliate. SSA argued that the question to Cyracom was just a clarification, as it had already deduced that the Cyracom Affiliate was affiliated with Cyracom based on “the fact that CII’s quotation was printed on stationery that depicted an affiliation, and that information available online did also.” 

GAO noted, with respect to affiliation, that

where an agency observes apparent affiliation between companies but lacks evidence establishing the nature of the relationship in the procurement at issue, the potential for variations in the extent and nature of the relationship between two affiliated companies means that it is not reasonable for that agency simply to infer that the relationship will affect contract performance, or even to accept an offeror’s general representation that the performance of an affiliated company–positive or negative–should be attributed to that offeror. Before the agency can properly attribute the past performance of an affiliate to an offeror, it generally must have a factual basis showing the planned relationship between the companies on the contract at issue. Where, as here, the record before the agency does not indicate the involvement of the affiliate in performance of the contract, the agency cannot simply attribute the affiliate’s past performance to the offeror.

GAO concluded that, when SSA sought an explanation of the role of the Cyracom Affiliate, it constituted discussions. Since Language Select did not receive an equivalent opportunity, SSA did not conduct discussions fairly and equally. 

Language Select also challenged the reasonableness of SSA’s past performance and experience evaluation, arguing that it was improper for SSA to attribute the Cyracom Affiliate’s experience to Cyracom. SSA argued that it is sufficient that an affiliate “shares management with the offeror” or where “the parent company manages the entire corporate family.” GAO disagreed, noting that “[a]bsent a factual basis to conclude that the awardee had a commitment of resources from other separate corporate subsidiaries, we found the attribution of those affiliates’ past performance and experience to the awardee to be improper.”

GAO held that the stationary and online information showing the affiliate relationship and the statement by Cyracom that the Cyracom Affiliate “was a wholly-owned subsidiary and that its services were ‘provided and managed by'” Cyracom was not enough to demonstrate the factual basis.

This decision is important because it sets guidelines for evaluating past performance based on affiliates. Generally, in preparing a proposal that uses affiliate past performance, the offeror must clearly demonstrate the factual basis for how the affiliate will be involved in performance and how the affiliate will share resources with the offeror. Merely noting the affiliation between the offeror and the affiliate is not sufficient for use of an affiliate’s past performance.