Contracting by Negotiation

By: Lane F. Kelman

As opportunities in the private sector remain, at best, stagnant, the public sector has become increasingly competitive. The desire to gain a competitive advantage, however, must be tempered by compliance with ethical obligations. When attempting to gain a competitive advantage, it is crucial to avoid the appearance that your advantage is

Contractors continue to be concerned about the impact that the filing of protests or claims will have on their past performance evaluations in negotiated procurements.  While it is never a good idea to file a frivolous protest or claim, it is improper for procurement officials to downgrade past performance evaluations simply because a contractor has

In recent years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has attempted to employ "innovative" contracting methods but, in doing so, has often limited the number of contractors who have had the opportunity to perform major construction projects.  One of the justifications for these “innovative” methods has been that there will be a reduction in the

A decision just published by the Government Accountability Office ("GAO"), Matter of Burchick Construction Co., mpany, involved a request for proposals issued by the Department of Veteran Affairs ("VA") for the construction of an ambulatory care center . After receiving five proposals and evaluating the technical evaluation factors, the VA conducted discussions with the offerors that only addressed their price

An important decision, Serco, Inc. v. United States was issued by the United States Court of Claims last week in a case involving a government-wide acquisition contract (“GWAC”) awarded by the General Services Administration (GSA) to provide technology products and services to the entire federal government.  Sixty-two offerors competed for a chance to perform task orders under this GWAC.  In ranking the technical proposals of these offerors, GSA teams assigned adjectival ratings to various subfactors and then converted them into whole numbers ( e.g., 3, 4, 5). Combining, averaging and weighting these figures, the agency ended up with technical scores that were carried out to three decimal points ( e.g., 3.817), and it made critical distinctions among the sixty-two offerors based upon the thousandths of a point.  Based upon these technical scores, twenty-eight contractors were designated by the agency as “presumptive awardees.”  GSA then purported to conduct price reasonableness and tradeoff analyses to take into account price-but, conspicuously, none of these comparisons resulted in any of the “presumptive awardees” being displaced by a lower-priced offeror.  Indeed, GSA ultimately made awards to offerors whose prices were 59th, 60th and 61st out of the sixty-two offers-prices that the agency claims were “fair and reasonable” despite being twice as high as the lowest winning offer, as much as thirty percent higher than the independent government cost estimate, and more than two standard deviations to the mean of the evaluated prices for all the offerors.

The so-called “Alliant” GWAC is to be administered by GSA pursuant to section 5112(e) of the Clinger-Cohen Act.  Alliant is designed to provide federal agencies with a broad range of information technology (IT) products and services, including computers, ancillary equipment, software, firmware and similar applications, network design, support services, and related resources such as telecommunication and security.  Alliant contemplates the multiple-award of indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (MA/IDIQ) contracts, with a ceiling of $50 billion, to be performed, on a task order basis, during a five-year base period and one, five-year option period.  Under the Alliant Solicitation No. TQ2006MCB0001 (the Solicitation), individual task orders could range as high as $1 billion in value; successful offerors, however, are guaranteed a minimum take of only $2,500.  Alliant offers a wide range of contract types, including fixed-price, cost reimbursement, labor-hour and time and material.

On September 26, 2007, Serco, Inc. (Serco) filed a complaint in this court challenging the award decisions and seeking a variety of injunctive relief.  Subsequently eight other unsuccessful offerors filed protests and were joined in the Serco protest. GSA issued the Solicitation on September 29, 2006. The Solicitation advised that GSA “contemplate[d making] approximately 25 to 30 awards … but reserves the right to place fewer or more awards, depending upon the quality of the proposals received.” Those receiving awards under the Solicitation are eligible to perform task orders under the contract. The Solicitation indicated that “[a]ward will be made to responsible Offerors whose proposals are determined to provide the ‘best value’ to the Government.”

In a scholarly opinion, by Judge Francis M. Allegra, the Court concluded that GSA, “in attaching ”talismanic significance to technical calculations that suffer from false precision, made distinctions that, in their own right, likely were arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law, but certainly became so when the agency failed adequately to account for price and to make appropriate tradeoff decisions. Those compounding errors prejudiced the plaintiffs and oblige this court to set aside the awards in question and order appropriate injunctive relief.”  The Court did not agree that there was a rational basis to make distinctions between offerors on the basis of thousandths of a point. Judge Allegra ruled that “Precision of thought is not always reflected in the number of digits found to the right of a decimal point – indeed, as with other constructs, there can be, to paraphrase Holmes, a “kind of precision that obscures.”  Ultimately, Court ruled that the agency made award decisions that were “arbitrary, capricious and otherwise contrary to law.”Continue Reading Court Enjoins Awards of Government-wide Task Order Contracts Because of "False Precision" in the Numerical Ratings of the Offerors

The Corps of Engineers responded to the recent Order of the United States Court of Federal Claims dated November 1, 2007, granting a permanent injunction against the issuance of a MATOC solicitation for dredging, by taking four proposed task orders included in the MATOC solicitation and reissuing them as separate negotiated procurements.  (See

In a recent prebid protest presented by our firm, Payne Hackenbracht & Sullivan, the United States Court of Federal Claims considered the protest of Weeks Marine, Inc. v. The United States (“Weeks”) challenging the decision of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, South Atlantic Division (“SAD”), to solicit proposals for maintenance dredging and shore protection projects using negotiated indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (“IDIQ”) multiple-award task order contracts (“MATOC”).  The Court noted that the contemplated change to negotiated IDIQ task order contracting represented a significant departure from SAD’s prior practice of using sealed bidding, and further noted that the policy change had caused widespread industry criticism. 

As grounds for its protest, Weeks asserted that SAD’s proposed change to negotiated IDIQ/MATOC task order contracting was contrary to law, and was without any rational basis.  Weeks relied upon 10 U.S.C. § 2304(a) and Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) ¶ 6.401(a), mandating that an agency shall use sealed bidding procedures when (1) time permits, (2) awards will be made solely based on price, (3) discussions are not necessary, and (4) the agency reasonably expects to receive more than one bid. Weeks contended that each of these four conditions was met for SAD’s dredging contracts, and that no legal basis existed to use negotiation procedures.

The Corps of Engineers argued in opposition that SAD’s proposed IDIQ task order contracting was lawful, that the agency had wide discretion in selecting an appropriate procurement method, and that SAD’s justification for the change was reasonable under current circumstances.  The Court disagreed and ruled that an agency’s discretion “does not empower an agency to employ a procurement method in violation of applicable law.”  The Court ruled that SAD had not pointed to any significant changes in its procurement environment that would warrant a change to IDIQ task order contracting.  The Acquisition Plan confirmed that SAD had “excelled in program execution” during the last two years and “the Court does not see any reasons or developments for moving away from the sealed bid process.  Without any analysis of the applicable statutes and regulations, and without citing any significant reasons or developments, the Court held that SAD would violate 10 U.S.C. § 2304(a), FAR ¶ 6.401(a), FAR ¶ 14.103-1(a), and FAR ¶ 36.103(a) by employing IDIQ task order contracting methods.“

This is an important judicial opinion that will hopefully cause government agencies to revisit decisions to utilize contracting by negotiation in either single procurements or IDIQ contracting.  When the sole justification for negotiated contracting boils down to nothing more than a desire to introduce unnecessary subjectivity into the source selection process, RFPs should not be used and sealed bidding should continue to be the preferred method.  In dredging, as in many other areas of construction contracting, sealed bidding has been a successful procurement method for many years.  It is a system that provides the greatest risk coupled with the greatest opportunity for reward and it is an integral part of the free enterprise system.

Of great concern to the Court was the fact that under SAD’s “new” procurement method approximately $2 billion in task order awards during the next five years would become virtually immune from any judicial or administrative bid protest review.  The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 (“FASA”) provides that “[a] protest is not authorized in connection with the issuance of a task order or delivery order except for a protest on the ground that the order increases the scope, period, or maximum value of the contract under which the order is issued.”  While SAD’s current sealed bid awards routinely are subject to bid protest review by the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) or the Court, SAD’s task order awards would be insulated from review except in very limited circumstances.  Thus, while purporting to use highly discretionary “best value” evaluation procedures in awarding task orders, SAD effectively would remove itself from any bid protest oversight.   Although the Corps argued that the Court must apply the FASA provision that Congress created, the Court ruled that this provision did not authorize SAD to convert all of its procurements into task orders.

In asserting a need for a change from sealed bidding to contracting by negotiation, the Corps contradicted its own position by stating that its sealed bid approach had “excelled in program execution” during the last two years.  As a result, the Court concluded that “The agency has provided no evidence that the current system is failing or in need of revision.  In fact, the Court would be hard-pressed to identify any contracts better suited to sealed bid procurement than dredging.  If not appropriate for dredging work, it is difficult to imagine when sealed bidding ought to be used.” (Emphasis added).Continue Reading Federal Court Rules that Negotiated IDIQ/MATOC Contracting Cannot be Used Instead of Sealed Bidding Without a Lawful and Rational Basis

In a decision issued on April 20, 2007, but published today because of a protective order, the GAO denied a protest by Olympus Building Services, Inc., B-296741.14; B-296741.15 against the award of a contract to Rowe Contracting Services, Inc., issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for janitorial services at the DIA Analysis Center. Olympus challenged

In a decision issued by the Government Accountability Office, S4, Inc., B-299817, August 23, 2007, the disappointed offer protested an award to Croop-LaFrance, Inc., a lower priced offeror, under a Request for Proposals (“RFP”) to procure information technology desktop information services. The RFP specified that award would be based on a “technically acceptable-risk/past performance/price tradeoff,” which the RFP explained as follows:

For those Offerors who are determined to be technically acceptable, tradeoffs will be made between proposal risk, past performance and price. Proposal risk and past performance are of equal importance, and when combined, are considered significantly more important than price.

The agency determined that the ratings of past performance of S4, Inc. and Croop-LaFrance were essentially equal and that it was therefore appropriate that price should be the discriminator in making the source selection.  S4 contended that the agency should have drawn more detailed distinctions in the past performance evaluations and that the agency improperly ignored significant distinctions. This sort of protest is very difficult to win because it calls upon the GAO to substitute its discretion for that of the agency – something that the GAO has consistently refused to do, except where there is no rational basis or the agency’s source selection, or procurements laws or regulations have been clearly violated.

Predictably, the GAO stated that “Determining the relative merits of an offeror’s past performance information is primarily a matter within the contracting agency’s discretion; we will examine an agency’s evaluation only to ensure that it was reasonable and consistent with the solicitation’s evaluation criteria and procurement statutes and regulations.” Here, the RFP did not commit the Air Force to evaluating past performance only in the more selective manner that S4 desires.  Rather, based on the GAO’s review of the record, the finding was made that the Air Force’s approach was consistent with the RFP, and that the overall rating of Croop-LaFrance as “high confidence” under the past performance factor was reasonable.Continue Reading Determination of the Relative Merit of Past Performance Evaluation is a Matter of Agency Discretion