Should Protester’s Highly-Rated Experience Have Been the Standard Against Which Other Offerors Were Assessed?

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The protester alleged the agency disparately evaluated proposals. The protester and the awardee had both received high confidence ratings for their corporate experience. The protester, however, argued that the awardee shouldn’t have received a high confidence rating because it had fewer strengths and more weaknesses under the experience factor. GAO, however, found that the protester wrongly assumed that its own quotation should be the template for a high confidence rating. The agency reasonably found that the awardee’s proposal—standing by itself—warranted a high confidence rating.

Citizant, Inc.; Steampunk, Inc., GAO B-420660 et al.

Background

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an RFQ that contemplated a blanket purchase agreement for information technology support services. DHS received 34 quotations, but after two down-selects, only a few vendors, including Citizant, Inc., Steampunk, Inc., and SiloSmashers, Inc., moved on to the final evaluation phase.

DHS excluded Citizant from the best-value tradeoff, concluding that the company’s non-compliance with the RFQ made its price indeterminable. Whie Steampunk had the highest-rated proposal, DHS determined that the benefits of its proposal did not warrant its price premium. DHS ultimately awarded the contract to SiloSmashers. Citizant and Steampunk protested.

Analysis

Citizant’s Protest

DHS found that Citizant had failed to include pricing for the minimum number of positions. As a result, the agency could not evaluate Citizant’s proposal for price reasonableness. Citizant, however, argued that the RFQ allowed vendors to provide alternate labor hours and categories. Citizant reasoned that vendors could propose fewer FTEs than required by the solicitation, even zero FTEs for a position.

But GAO found that Citizant had misinterpreted the RFQ. While vendors were free to quote alternate labor hours, they could not quote fewer than the minimum number of people to fill each position. Thus, a vendor could not—as Citizant had—eliminate a position altogether by proposing zero FTEs.

Citizant raised other protest arguments, but because it had submitted a non-compliant proposal, it was not an interested party to raise those arguments.

Steampunk’s Protest

Corporate Experience

Steampunk alleged the agency disparately evaluated proposals under the corporate experience factor. Steampunk had received a high confidence rating under the factor, but it argued that the agency improperly found SiloSmashers quotation also warranted a high confidence rating because SiloSmashers had fewer strengths and more weaknesses.

GAO rejected this argument. As an initial matter, Steampunk sought to establish its own quotation as the template for a rating of high confidence. Nothing in the RFQ required such an evaluation. 

Moreover, while Steampunk may have had more strengths and fewer weaknesses than SiloSmashers, the relative merits of quotations should not be based on a mechanical counting of strengths and weaknesses. DHS had reasonably found that SiloSmashers sufficiently demonstrated experience under all the function areas. Additionally, DHS had found that the benefits of SiloSmashers’ strengths outweighed the weaknesses assessed to its experience.

Misrepresentation

Steampunk contended that Silosmashers had misrepresented the experience of its proposed program manager, and that DHS had unreasonably assigned a strength to the SiloSmashers based on this misrepresentation.

GAO found that these arguments couldn’t sustain a protest. Even if SiloSmashers had inflated the experience of its program manager, the RFQ did not require program managers to have a minimum level experience. Moreover, the strength assigned to SiloSmashers’ program manager was not mentioned in the tradeoff or the best-value rationales. If SiloSmashers had been unreasonably credited a strength, GAO found that removal of that strength would not change the award decision. Steampunk had not been prejudiced.

Citizant is represented by Tenley A. Carp., Sara M. Lord, and Erin N. Winn of Arnall Golden Gregory, LLP. Steampunk is represented by Gregory R. Hallmark, Hillary J. Freund, and Danielle Rich of Holland & Knight LLP. The intervenor, SiliSmashers, is represented by Lars E. Anderson, and Charlotte R. Rosen, and James P. Miller of Odin Feldman & Pittleman, P.c. The agency is represented by Philip Lee and Russell Moy of the Department of Homeland Security. GAO attorneys Raymond Richards and Jonathan L. Kang participated in the preparation of the decision.

GAO - Citizant Inc.