By: Michael H. Payne & Elise M. Carlin
Each year, a significant number of bid protests filed at the GAO are the result of inadequate discussions. Recently, the GAO released two decisions which reiterated the importance of holding meaningful discussions that do not mislead offerors during negotiated procurements.
The purpose of holding discussions in negotiated procurements is to maximize the best value to the government. Discussions are held to give offerors in the competitive range an opportunity to revise their bids to make them more competitive. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (the “FAR”) defines discussions and in what context they occur with an offeror:
Negotiations are exchanges, in either a competitive or sole source environment, between the Government and offerors, that are undertaken with the intent of allowing the offeror to revise its proposal. These negotiations may include bargaining. Bargaining includes persuasion, alteration of assumptions and positions, give-and-take, and may apply to price, schedule, technical requirements, type of contract, or other terms of a proposed contract. When negotiations are conducted in a competitive acquisition, they take place after establishment of the competitive range and are called discussions.
Requirements of Discussions
It is well established in federal procurement law that discussions between the contracting officer of an agency and an offeror must be meaningful. Once discussions have been opened, the FAR dictates that an agency “shall…indicate to, or discuss with, each offeror still being considered for award, significant weakness, deficiencies, and other aspects of its proposal…that could, in the opinion of the contracting officer, be altered or explained to enhance materially the proposal’s potential for award.” In order to be meaningful, a discussion must generally lead an offeror into specific areas of their proposal which require modification. Additionally, discussions should be as specific as practical considerations permit, and give offerors a reasonable opportunity to address any potential weaknesses or deficiencies in its proposal which could impact the offeror’s competitiveness.
Limitations on Discussions
While discussions must be meaningful, they must also not be misleading. Additionally, they must not favor one offeror over another. During discussions, the contracting officer cannot divulge one offeror’s technical solution to another, including any unique technology or innovative and unique uses of commercial items, or any other information that would compromise an offeror’s intellectual property. Additionally, any pricing information cannot be revealed without that offeror’s permission. In terms of pricing information however, the government may inform an offeror that its price is considered too high or too low and explain how that conclusion was reached. It is also within the government’s discretion to inform all offerors if there is a particular price that it has determined to be reasonable based on price analysis, market research or other methods. The government may not disclose the names of any individuals who have provided reference information about an offerors past performance. Lastly, during discussions, the government may not knowingly provide source selection information in violation of the provisions of the FAR that govern procurement integrity, or the savings provisions of the U.S. Code pertaining to Restrictions on disclosing and obtaining contractor bid or proposal information or source selection information. Once discussions have concluded, each offeror must have an opportunity to submit a final proposal revision by a common deadline.
Continue Reading Recent GAO Decisions Highlight the Importance of Meaningful Discussions with Offerors During the Negotiated Procurement Process