Have you ever seen a parallel from romantic comedies (Rom-Coms) and federal contract bids? Here is where we learn this critical lesson that U.S. Government agencies may also be seen as that sought after love interest that is only going to spurn you if you don’t realize something very important.
Here we have another Deadly Sin when you fail to realize…
They may just not be that into you.
Editor’s note: This real-life example drawn from the GAO protest docket is NOT intended to single out, shame, or otherwise impugn on the reputation of a business. Quite honestly, this mistake is one of many made by so many bidders that we could easily feature several examples. This is about learning and not shaming.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
Contract is for Internet Quality Improvement & Evaluation System (iQIES) Agile Software Development Services.
Protest decision date: October 5, 2020
The protest was centered on three aspects of the contract award decision.
- Challenged the nature of the evaluation process regarding the staffing required
- Challenged price realism
- Challenged the evaluation of Ventera’s (the loser) oral presentation
This was a task order competition via the ADELE BPA via GSA MAS to provide “agile software development services for the development, modernization, enhancement, operation, and maintenance of certain aspects of the agency’s Internet Quality Improvement and Evaluation System (IQIES).” This was set up using what is increasingly used at CMS (and other agencies ) with multi-stage evaluation processes.
CMS used a three phase evaluation process as follows.
- CMS presents bidders with a solutioning exercise to be addressed in an oral presentation.
- CMS evaluates the evaluate the presentations, and issue advisory notices to vendors to inform them of their likelihood of award.
- Bidders submit written proposals.
It’s important to understand that this is a follow-on task order in which Ventera was the incumbent contractor.
|Technical Approach / Understanding
|Product Accessibility Template
|Acceptable / Pass
|Acceptable / Pass
What went wrong?
Borrowing directly from the protest digest, we have the following.
Following the presentations, the agency provided advisory notices to the vendors who participated. Of note, Ventera received an advisory notice explaining that Ventera was not among the most highly rated vendors and would not be likely to succeed in the next phase of the competition, but that Ventera could still participate in the third phase of the procurement. Ventera responded to the agency that it intended to participate in phase 3 of the procurement. Ultimately, the agency received written quotations from two vendors: Ventera and SemanticBits.
Wow. There’s a few things to unpack here.
First, we have the incumbent Ventera was encouraged to NOT bid.
Second, and we’re using content disclosed from the protest that indicates there were four (4) bidders to start and now only two bidders pressed on – Ventera (told they really should not bother) and SemanticBits. The others were likely told to stay home.
Do you think CMS really, really, really wanted SemanticBits?
In fairness to Ventera, if you are the incumbent and your customer fired a warning shot across the bow that they were not thrilled with you, that’s not a good sign. Why do you press on anyway?
We know better than you do
What happened that led to Ventera’s poor rating?
CMS stated the expected staffing requirements down to details of how many software development teams would be staffed and exactly their expected workload.
Ventera bid significantly fewer teams and personnel. This helped Ventera’s price be very low compared to SemanticBits.
Ventera later challenged CMS’s requirements as flawed in two major respects. Borrowing language directly from the GAO protest digest, we have:
- The agency applied an unstated evaluation criterion to quotations by improperly treating the number of teams outlined in the solicitation as a mandatory minimum.
- The agency’s assignment of risk for the firm’s lower number of teams (and lower labor hours) in the context of a fixed-price procurement represented a flawed price realism assessment.
Regarding the first point, CMS stated very clearly its requirements. It seems more likely that Ventera believed it knew better (an assumption on our part).
The second point was equally bizarre in that it had nothing to do with price realism. Ventera instead criticized CMS’s specified level of effort as ignoring outcomes vs. level of effort. Even though CMS did not address Ventera’s wildly lower staffing as a price realism issue, the drastically lower staffing levels generated a risk to performance.
In both cases, CMS was detailed in expectations. It seems the incumbent bidder just didn’t read the clear signs of expectations and instead bid as they saw fit.
While not related to these clear signs of ignoring fundamental RFP requirements, Ventera also claimed it did not need a transition plan because it is the incumbent. Oy. It’s a new contract so yes…you really do.
- If you go through a multi-phased evaluation process in which your customer indicates they don’t think you’re going to be competitive, that’s a bad sign.
- If staffing levels are specified and you receive formal early warnings that you’re in trouble, make adjustments to MEET RFP REQUIREMENTS or you’re going to lose.
- If you are the incumbent and RFP requirements are greatly different than what you think that customer wants / needs, that’s a bad sign for you.
- Bidding wildly different solutions vs. requirements generates a significant perception of risk and you will lose.
If your customer indicates that you’ve grown apart, but they say “it’s not you, it’s me.”
It’s definitely you.
Do you want to explore more follies in bidding to help you understand how agencies make contract award decisions? Check out FedAgency Insight!
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