Competition is the touchstone of federal contracting. Except in limited circumstances, agencies are required to procure goods and services through full and open competition. In this regard, an agency’s decision to limit competition to only brand name items must be adequately justified.
GAO recently affirmed this principle in Phoenix Environmental Design, Inc., B-413373 (Oct. 14, 2016), when it sustained a protest challenging the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management’s decision to restrict its solicitation for herbicides on a brand name basis.
The solicitation at issue in Phoenix Environmental Design specifically named five herbicides, and contemplated that BLM would issue a purchase order to the vendor that offered to provide those five herbicides on a best value basis. Because the estimated value of these commercial—about $5,500—fell below the simplified acquisition threshold, BLM issued the solicitation using commercial item and simplified acquisition procedures (under FAR Parts 12 and 13, respectively).
Phoenix Environmental Design, Inc. filed a pre-award GAO bid protest challening BLM’s decision to limit the solicitation to brand name herbicides. Phoenix argued that BLM’s decision was unduly restrictive of competition. To support its protest, Phoenix pointed to a list of commercial herbicides—described by Phoenix as equal to the brand names identified in the solicitation—that were approved for use on BLM land.
BLM opposed the protest, saying that the brand name herbicides requested were currently approved for use under the agency’s pesticide use proposal (“PUP”). To use a specific pesticide on BLM land, there must be an approved PUP listing the specific pesticide. So, BLM said that it was “justified in using brand name only herbicides in this case because if it desires to use other equal pesticides that are not on the PUP, it will be required to amend the PUP to include these pesticides, which will take up to six months.”
Resolving the protest, GAO noted that agencies are required to obtain competition to the maximum extent practicable. As part of this requirement, agencies are generally prohibited from soliciting quotations based on personal preference or from restricting the solicitation to suppliers of well-known and widely distributed makes or brands. “In a simplified acquisition,” GAO wrote, the FAR allows an agency to “limit a solicitation to a brand name item when the contracting officer determines that the circumstances of the contract action deem only one source is reasonably available.”
Applying these principles, GAO found BLM’s decision to restrict competition to the brand name herbicides to be unreasonable. Though BLM said that all of the specified herbicides were approved for use under the PUP, it failed to support this statement with adequate documentation. To the contrary, based on the information provided, GAO concluded that “there is no current PUP that covers three of the herbicides that the agency is procuring under a brand name only specification.”
Faced with this information, BLM said that it has discretion to purchase a product prior to the completion of a PUP. Specifically, BLM said that its purchase of the brand name items was justified because it was finalizing a (yet-to-be-approved) PUP that included them. This explanation, however, was inconsistent with BLM’s justification for restricting competition to name brands in the first place—BLM had said that it could not purchase the generic herbicides because they were not listed on the PUP. GAO found this inconsistency to be unreasonable, writing that BLM “cannot simply rely on the PUP to limit competition, where it has not provided a reasonable basis for excluding items from the PUP.”
Because BLM failed to reasonably justify its reasons for limiting the competition to only brand name items, GAO sustained Phoenix’s protest.
On occasion, an agency might have a good reason to limit a solicitation to only brand name items. But where it doesn’t have a good reason—or where those reasons aren’t adequately documented—GAO will often find the solicitation to be unduly restrictive of competition. That’s exactly what happened in Phoenix Environmental Design.