By: Michael H. Payne

A protest that challenges the source selection decision on a negotiated, best value, procurement is not easy to win. Numerous decisions of the GAO and the United States Court of Federal Claims have held that procurement officials are entitled to substantial deference. In a recent decision by the Court of Federal Claims, however, the Court stated that “such deference is not unlimited.” See Firstline Transportation Security, Inc. v. United States dated September 27, 2011. While the protest did not involve a construction project, and dealt with a Department of Homeland Security contract for airport screening services, the Court’s decision is certainly applicable to procurements for construction.

The Plaintiff argued that the Source Selection Evaluation Board (“SSEB”) failed to conduct a proper best-value analysis and actually awarded the contract on a lowest-price, technically acceptable basis. That, of course, was improper because the government advertised that there would be a best-value tradeoff that would weigh all of the evaluation factors and price. While a number of protesters have alleged that the Government ignored the advertised evaluation factors and simply found a way to award to the lowest price, it is refreshing to know that, in this case, the Court agreed that the facts supported the protester’s contention.

The Court’s decision is quite lengthy (79 pages) and we will not discuss it in detail, but a copy is linked to this article and we recommend that you give it a quick review. In essence, the Court found that that the best-value analysis performed by the SSEB was both irrational and inconsistent with the evaluation scheme set forth in the RFP. In criticizing the agency, the Court stated that the SSEB failed to account for the significant differences between the competing proposals with respect to technical quality; and, that in selecting a higher-priced, technically superior proposal for award, an agency must explain and document why the technical merits of that proposal warrant its higher price. The Court stated:

[T]he agency is compelled by the FAR to document its
reasons for choosing the higher-priced offer. Conclusory
statements, devoid of any substantive content, have been
held to fall short of this requirement, threatening to turn
the tradeoff process into an empty exercise. Indeed, apart
from the regulations, generalized statements that fail to
reveal the agency’s tradeoff calculus deprive this court of
any basis upon which to review the award decisions.

The finding regarding lack of documentations is particularly welcome because we see so many cases where the GAO and the Court accept very sparse documentation without putting the agency to the test of fully explaining, and supporting, its source selection rationale.

The decision in this case is noteworthy because it holds out the hope that where the facts support a protester’s allegations, the Court will not simply defer to the discretion of the agency. The Source Selection Authority (“SSA”) in this case did not perform an independent evaluation and assessment of competing proposals which, of course, explains why there was no documentation of any such assessment. The Court found this to be particularly egregious and emphasized that the “SSA’s documentation is limited to her adoption of the SSEB report and her otherwise unsupported statement that the intervenor’s proposal represents the best value to the government.” The more that federal agencies are required to document and fully explain the basis for their procurement decisions, the more likely it will be that procurement decisions will be made fairly and impartially.

Michael H. Payne is the Chairman of the firm’s Federal Practice Group and, together with other experienced members of the group, frequently advises contractors on federal contracting matters, including teaming arrangements, negotiated procurements, bid protests, claims, and appeals.