Agency Disparately Evaluated Proposals by Somehow Drawing a Distinction Between “Tuition Reimbursement” and “Reimbursement for Academic Degrees”; DigiFlight, Inc., GAO B-419590, B-419590.2

52

Protest alleging disparate evaluation is sustained. The agency assigned the awardee strengths for its high employee retention rate and generous benefits, including tuition reimbursement. The protester alleged it had similar retention rate and offered similar benefit. GAO agreed with the protester. The agency had found the awardee’s “tuition reimbursement” significant but could not explain why it didn’t similarly credit the protester for proposing to reimburse employees for academic degrees. Moreover, the agency could not explain why the protester’s retention rate, which was slightly higher than the awardee’s, was not considered beneficial.

The Army issued an RFQ to holders of a blanket purchase agreement. The RFQ sought advisory and assistance services for the Army’s Program Executive Office of Aviation Headquarters. The Army received six quotations, including quotes from DigiFlight, Inc. and Navigator Development Group (NDG). The Army found that NDG’s offered a superior technical solution, and that its approach was worth its price premium. DigiFlight protested.

DigiFlight alleged that the Army disparately evaluated proposals with respect to risk mitigation and management. The Army assigned NDG two strengths under the risk mitigation and management factor. The Army reasoned that NDG had demonstrated a 95% employee retention as well as a generous benefits package that included tuition reimbursement. DigiFlight argued that it had proposed a similar approach but had not received any strengths.

GAO found that the Army had treated the offerors unequally. While the Army contended that DigiFlight did not offer “tuition reimbursement,” GAO noted that  DigiFlight had offered reimbursement for “academic degrees.” Neither the contemporaneous record nor the agency report explained why tuition reimbursement was somehow substantively different from reimbursement for academic degrees.

Additionally, DigiFlight had noted in its proposal that it had a 96 percent retention rate. The Army had not explained why it considered NDG’s 95 percent rate noteworthy, but did not consider DigiFlight’s rate significant.

GAO could not say whether assessing DigiFlight an additional strength for employee retention would have narrowed the gap between the protester’s and awardee’s proposals. Nevertheless, GAO reasoned, any doubts about prejudice are resolved in favor of the protester. GAO sustained the disparate treatment challenge.

DigiFlight argued that Army disparately evaluated proposals with regard to international program support. The Army assigned NDG a strength for its knowledge and expertise related to international program support. DigiFlight claimed it had demonstrated similar experience but didn’t receive a strength.

But GAO noted that the proposal portions DigiFlight cited to support its argument were not included in the section on international program support. The RFQ specifically required vendors to organize the descriptions of their approaches by PWS paragraph. DigiFlight’s argument jumped around the proposal. Consequently, GAO found that DigiFlight’s proposal did not contain as clear an approach to international program support as NDG’s. The Army did not err in declining to assess DigiFlight a strength.

DigiFlight objected to the best value tradeoff, arguing that the Army failed to conduct a detailed head-to-head analysis of proposals. GAO found that the Army had performed a qualitative comparison of proposals and sufficiently explained by NDGs higher-rated quotation was the best value. But GAO noted that the best value decision relied in part on a disparate evaluation, Accordingly, the best value decision was unreasonable.

GAO recommended the Army reevaluate DigiFlight and NDGs proposals under the risk mitigation and management factor.

DigiFlight is represented by Jerome S. Gabig, Richard J.R. Raleigh, Jr., and Christopher L. Lockwood of Wilmer & Lee, PA. The agency is represented by David C. Sabine and Alexa B. Bryan of the Army. GAO attorneys Heather Self and Peter H. Tran participated in the preparation of the decision.

GAO - Digiflight