In the competitive federal marketplace, businesses are always looking for ways to make their proposals more competitive. With millions of dollars at stake, it is no surprise that some competitors develop clever approaches to give their proposal a competitive edge. As one competitor recently discovered, however, there is a point where an offer can get too clever, which may result in proposal elimination. Especially when an agency views the clever approach as violating a solicitation staffing requirement.
Wilson 5 Service Company, Inc., B-418650.1 (Comp. Gen. June 17, 2020), involved a General Services Administration (GSA) procurement to establish a blanket purchase order for operations and maintenance services at six facilities in Alabama. Specifically, GSA sought staff to perform maintenance work on various infrastructure components ranging from landscape irrigation to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Importantly, the Solicitation placed an emphasis on developing a close working relationship between the contractor and GSA. To facilitate this, the solicitation requested the contractor to propose a full-time on-site project manager. According to the Solicitation, “[t]he Contract Project Manager or On-site Supervisor shall have complete authority to act for the Contractor in every detail during the terms of the Contract. . . [t]he Contractor can fulfill this requirement by having the Contract Project Manager located onsite or having an additional onsite Supervisor.”
In addition to the project manager, competitors were to propose nine full-time “productive” staff, including seven HVAC personnel, one electrician, and one production control clerk. The Solicitation was explicit that the management personnel would not count toward the nine productive staff.
In response to the solicitation, Wilson 5 proposed the required nine full-time productive staff, but it did not propose a project manager. Instead, Wilson 5 proposed to have one of the HVAC technicians also serve in a managerial capacity. Presumably, this gave Wilson 5’s proposal a price advantage, as it would utilize fewer personnel.
During its evaluation, GSA eliminated Wilson 5’s proposal on technical grounds. According to GSA, Wilson 5 “failed to include a full-time on-site Project Manager as required and instead offered an HVAC technician working in dual capacity as the site supervisor.” Consequently, GSA concluded that Wilson 5’s proposal was technically unacceptable.
Wilson 5 protested its elimination before GAO. In essence, Wilson 5 argued the solicitation could be interpreted to allow offerors to propose that one of the nine productive personnel would also serve as the manager. In response, GSA argued that the solicitation contained no such option, and clearly instructed offerors that the project manager was a separate individual.
GAO agreed with GSA’s position. According to GAO, “Wilson 5’s argument that the RFQ’s requirement for an on-site project manager/site supervisor could be satisfied by a full-time HVAC technician performing in a dual role capacity is not reasonably supported by the plain terms of the solicitation.” GAO pointed to the various instances where the solicitation instructed offerors to propose a dedicated full-time on-site supervisor. According to GAO, in light of these references, Wilson 5’s interpretation was not reasonable. Since GAO was not persuaded that the solicitation’s language was open to Wilson 5’s interpretation, it denied the protest.
Wilson 5’s experience is a cautionary tale for offerors. Creativity is an essential component of any successful bid, but there is a limit. Agencies are required to specify their needs in proposals to allow offerors to compete intelligently with one another. Offerors that do not clearly respond to the Solicitation’s minimum requirements can find themselves eliminated from competition, regardless of how advantageous the proposal approach would be to the government. Developing a unique approach can make or break a proposal, but—as Wilson 5 found—there is a limit to proposal creativity when contracting with the federal government.