You Think the Evaluation Was Too Harsh and Formalistic? Don’t Expect Sympathy from GAO.


The agency rejected the protester’s proposal as non-compliant. The protester argued the agency was unduly harsh, focusing on form over substance. GAO sided with the agency. The protester had not followed formatting instructions and omitted required information from its proposal. The agency wasn’t required to infer missing information from other parts of the proposal.

Development Services Group, Inc., GAO B-421310


The Department of Health and Human Services posted a solicitation seeking training and technical assistance support services. Development Services Group (DSG) submitted a proposal. HHS rejected DSG’s proposal as non-compliant. HHS said DSG hadn’t submitted required cost information and didn’t follow formatting instructions. DSG protested.


Summary of Costs

The solicitation instructed offerors to submit a business proposal with Excel spreadsheets. The spreadsheet had two tabs, one for the prime contractor and one for subs. The prime tab stated that costs listed had to contain subcontractor costs. DSG’s prime tab didn’t contain the subcontractor costs. Moreover, the company’s summary of costs were not submitted in an Excel spreadsheet. HHS found the summary non-compliant.

DSG argued HHS focused on form over substance. DSG reasoned HHS could have simply looked at the subcontractor tab of its business proposal and added those costs to the prime tab.

But GAO didn’t think HHS was unreasonable. DSG didn’t follow instructions and omitted required cost information from its proposal. The solicitation required offeror to include subcontractor cost in the prime tab. HHS didn’t have to infer cost information that wasn’t listed were it was supposed to be.

Estimated Costs Spreadsheet

The solicitation required offerors to submit an Excel spreadsheet with a breakdown of costs by individual tasks with a sum for core tasks and a sum for core plus optional tasks. DSG’s spreadsheet hadn’t included for a combined summary of total cost for each task or any cost information for core and optional tasks. DSG argued this information was contained on an PDF document included with its proposal. Again, however, GAO found DSG had not followed instructions and had not included required cost information on its Excel spreadsheet.

Latent Ambiguity

DSG contended the solicitation’s instructions on proposal formatting were ambiguous. DSG reasoned the solicitation contained conflicting instructions about information that needed to be submitted in PDF format versus Excel. GAO, however, found DSG’s own argument indicated that even if there were an ambiguity, it was patent, not latent. DSG should have raised this issue before the proposal deadline.

DSG is represented by Todd M. Garland of Smith Pachter McWhorter PLC. The agency is represented by Jennifer Yan, Tony Ross, and Eno-Obong Essien of the Department of Health and Human Services, GAO attorneys Michael P. Prince and John Sorrenti participated in the decision.

–Case summary by Craig LaChance, Senior Editor