GAO: Agencies Can’t Blindly Rely on Adjectival Ratings to Make Award Decisions

In evaluating proposals, an agency will sometimes use “adjectival ratings” (e.g., Excellent, Good, Acceptable) to describe its assessment of a proposal or portions of a proposal. But, importantly, an agency cannot evade its responsibility to reasonably evaluate proposals–based on the articulated evaluation criteria–by deferring solely to the assigned adjectival ratings.

In other words, if the agency doesn’t perform a true qualitative assessment, but instead relies on mere labels to make its ultimate award decision, GAO will likely slap the agency’s hand.

This issue recently arose in the Cyberdata Technologies, Inc., B-417084 (Feb. 6, 2019). There, the RFQ contemplated awarding a task order (to holders of a certain GWAC) for information technology support services for NOAA’s weather and climate computing infrastructure services program. The agency intended to award the task order to the vendor whose proposal represented the best value, taking into consideration technical approach, corporate experience, and price. The RFQ noted that non-price factors, combined, were significantly more important than price. Two offerors submitted proposals–the protester (Cyberdata) and Ace.

During evaluations, Cyberdata and Ace achieved the same adjectival ratings: both were assigned an Acceptable rating for their technical approaches; both were assigned a Good rating for their corporate experience; and both were assigned an overall Good rating. According the NOAA, Cyberdata’s overall Good rating was fueled by a combination of significant strengths and “some strengths” (and no weaknesses or deficiencies) noted in its proposal; likewise, Ace’s overall Good rating was predicated on a combination of significant strengths and “several strengths” (and no weaknesses or deficiencies) noted in its proposal. As to price, Ace’s proposal was about $2.3 million cheaper. As a result, the selection official concluded that price should be the determining factor because both offerors received a Good rating.

Cyberdata argued that NOAA merely relied on the adjectival ratings (and, therefore didn’t conduct a bona find best-value analysis) and simply awarded the task order based on price. NOAA countered arguing that the selection officer considered the various significant strengths and strengths assigned to each offeror’s proposal in making the award decision. And according to NOAA, after taking these various strengths into consideration, the contracting officer was permitted to use price as the discriminating factor.

For many years, GAO has held that adjectival ratings “are merely guides for intelligent decision-making in the procurement process.” But the ultimate evaluation “should be based upon a qualitative assessment of proposals consistent with the solicitation’s scheme.” In addition, the number of strengths “assigned to proposals are not dispositive metrics for an agency to express a proposal’s merit.”

Here, GAO was unimpressed with NOAA’s evaluation, which apparently deferred to the superficiality of adjectival ratings and failed to gauge the proposals’ qualitative merits. GAO stated:

Here, the portion of the selection decision provided by the agency does not demonstrate that the selection official meaningfully looked behind the adjectival ratings and beyond the number of strengths assessed to each vendor’s quotation to determine that the vendors’ quotations were technically equal. As noted above, the selection decision simply acknowledged that the overall rating for CyberData’s quotation under the non‑price factors was based on a combination of significant strengths and ‟some strengths,” whereas the overall rating for Ace’s quotation was based on a combination of significant strengths and ‟several strengths.” The selection official concluded that because both offerors received an overall rating of good, the determining factor became price. Because the record does not demonstrate that the selection official considered the qualitative value of the vendors’ quotations, we sustain this protest ground. 

In this case, GAO is not condemning the use of adjectival ratings. But it does reiterate the limits placed on an agency’s use of adjectival ratings to make an award decision. While an agency, like NOAA, can use the ratings to guide decision making, it must peer behind the rating curtain to make its ultimate qualitative assessment. If it doesn’t, GAO will see the award decision for what it is: blind reliance on words and not a bona fide best-value determination.