The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act gives certain small subcontractors a new tool to request past performance ratings from the government.
If the pilot program works as intended, it may ultimately improve those subcontractors’ competitiveness for prime contract bids, for which a documented history of past performance is often critical.
For small contractors looking to break into the federal marketplace, a lack of past performance ratings can be a major problem. Without government past performance ratings, it can be difficult to prevail in a “best value” competition. Sure, FAR 15.305 provides that the government can consider past projects performed for non-governmental entities, and the same FAR section states than an offeror without a record of relevant past performance should receive a “neutral” rating. But ask most contractors, and they’ll tell you that their perception–for better or for worse–is that an offeror without government past performance references can be at a significant competitive disadvantage.
Perhaps Congress agrees. Section 1822 of the 2017 NDAA creates a pilot program that will allow a “first tier” subcontractor performing on a government contract, which required the prime contractor to develop a subcontracting plan, to submit an application to the appropriate official (agencies will designate a recipient) requesting a past performance rating. Interestingly, the subcontractor will be able to include a suggested rating, but will have to support the suggestion with written evidence, almost as if the subcontractor will have to plead its case. The application will then go to both the agency Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization and the prime contractor for review. Each will submit an official response within 30 days.
If the OSDBU and prime contractor agree with the suggested rating, the official simply will enter the rating into the government’s past performance system, and the subcontractor will be able to use the rating “to establish its past performance for a prime contract.”
However, if they disagree with the subcontractor’s suggested rating, the disagreeing party will submit a notice contesting the application, the official will provide the subcontractor with the notice, and the subcontractor will have 14 days to submit comments, rebuttals, and additional information. But, interestingly, the review will stop there. No decider will determine whether the subcontractor’s proposed rating was “right” or “wrong.” Instead, the official with then enter a neutral rating into the system along with the original application and any responses.
This pilot program may turn out to be a valuable tool for companies with excellent performance at the subcontract level but little or no prime contract experience. The program’s timing may be fortuitous, as well: it could dovetail nicely with the SBA’s new “All Small” mentor-protege program, as well as the existing SBA 8(a) and DoD mentor-protege programs. As a part of a mentor-protege agreement, a large mentor could subcontract work to the protege, then help the protege apply for (and hopefully receive) an excellent past performance rating for its work.
However, in practice, there would seem to be a few areas where things may go awry. First, since subcontractors are responsible for suggesting their own ratings, this introduces the obvious potential that a subcontractor could attempt to inflate its score–and put its prime contractor in the difficult position of disagreeing with its teaming partner. Also, on the flip side, the procedure allows for the prime contractor to potentially derail a future competitor by disagreeing with a reasonable suggested rating, and thereby ensure through simple disagreement, at best, a neutral rating. Because there is no adjudicative procedure, the subcontractor seems to have no recourse if the prime contractor doesn’t provide a fair response.
Then there is the question of why OSDBUs are expected to weigh in on the specific past performance scores assigned to small subcontractors. Agency OSDBUs are advocates for small businesses, and are involved in various ways throughout the acquisition cycle. That said, it seems unlikely that an OSDBU will, in the typical case, have sufficient knowledge of a particular small subcontractor’s quality of performance to pass independent judgment on what past performance score that subcontractor should receive. Involving agency OSDBUs ordinarily is a good thing, but requiring them to pass judgment on a subcontractor’s past performance might not be the best way to go about it.
Finally, there is the question of just what sort of weight the typical contracting officer will afford to these ratings. Although the rating comes from the contracting agency, the rating itself is established by the subcontractor, prime contractor, and OSDBU. It’s possible that some contracting officers will see these ratings as less persuasive than “ordinary” prime contractor ratings developed by government contracting officials.
Fortunately, Congress seems to have anticipated that the pilot program might need to be improved. The 2017 NDAA requires the GAO to assess the program one year after it is established and report various findings back to Congress, including “any suggestions or recommendation the Comptroller General has to improve the operation of the pilot program.”
The statute calls for the SBA to establish the pilot program, but doesn’t provide a specific deadline for the SBA to do so. Once the program is up and running, it will last for three years,, beginning on “the date on which the first applicant small business concern receives a past performance rating for performance as a first tier subcontractor.” At that point, it will be up to Congress whether to continue the pilot program.