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Understanding Government Contract Source Selection

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Your Go-to Resource for Government Contract Source Selection!
From planning to protest and all the steps in between, Understanding Government Contract Source Selection is the one reference all government acquisition professionals and contractors should keep close at hand. This valuable resource provides straightforward guidance to ensure you develop a firm foundation in government contract source selection.
Government acquisition professionals can reference this book for guidance on:
• Preparing the acquisition and source selection plans
• Drafting evaluation criteria and proposal preparation instructions
• Creating a scoring plan and rating method
• Drafting the RFP and SOW
• Conducting a pre-proposal conference
• Preparing to receive proposals and training evaluators
• Evaluating technical, management, and cost proposals
• Avoiding protest
Contractors can reference this book for guidance on:
• Selling to the federal government
• Reviewing a draft RFP and providing comments
• Participating in a pre-proposal conference
• Preparing a proposal that complies with RFP requirements
• Developing a strategy for teaming agreements, subcontracts, and key personnel
• Negotiating a contract
• Getting the most out of post-award debriefings
• Filing a protest
PLUS! Understanding Government Contract Source Selection provides a source selection glossary, an extensive case study, and sample proposal preparation instructions in the appendices to help you navigate the federal competitive source selection process. This complete guide is an indispensable resource for anyone striving to build their knowledge of government contract source selection!

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Chapter 1: The Legislative History of Source Selection

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Many people ask “Why do we have to do this?” during their first competitive source selection. Often, certain procedures are required by law. This chapter explains significant pieces of legislation, and the resulting regulatory framework, that affect competitive negotiated source selections. Occasionally, requirements appear not to make sense or seem overly burdensome, but each step of the acquisition process is backed by some law or regulatory interpretation. Laws and regulations drive this very formal, highly regulated method of spending public money.

Congress lays out the overall structure of and mandates for acquisitions in two primary statutes. The Armed Services Procurement Act of 1947 (10 USC 137) prescribes the general requirements for the Department of Defense (DoD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and U.S. Coast Guard, while the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act (41 USC 251-260) covers almost all of the rest of the executive branch of the federal government.

 

Chapter 2: Planning the Acquisition

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Let’s face it, acquisition planning isn’t fun; in fact, some consider it a painful process. Nevertheless, it’s mandated by the Competition in Contracting Act. One might compare acquisition planning to getting children to eat vegetables. They might not like it, but it’s good for them. Similarly, acquisition planning is actually good for you. Really! It forces you to go through the process step by step and think about what you need and how you’re going to get it. Once you get past the fact that you have to do something you may not want to, acquisition planning is really not that hard. This chapter explains the planning process and offers suggestions to make it less painful.

During the acquisition planning phase, the government conducts market research and prepares the acquisition plan and source selection plan, if necessary. We’ll look at these parts of the planning process in this chapter.

Market research is the process of collecting and analyzing information about capabilities within the market that can satisfy an agency’s needs.1 It is the first step in acquisition planning and is essential to designing an acquisition strategy and identifying proposal evaluation criteria. In fact, it should be done before the contracting officer or program manager even begins writing the acquisition plan.

 

Chapter 3: Writing Evaluation Factors

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Recall from Chapter 2 that evaluation factors and subfactors, and the determination of their relative importance, are part of the source selection plan. The evaluation factors and their relative order of importance illustrate the government’s priorities. For example, if the most important evaluation factor is price, that means the agency is not willing (or able) to pay more for higher quality.

In every RFP, the contracting officer (CO) must include the evaluation criteria and state the relative order of importance for each criterion. This chapter will help the reader understand the mandatory evaluation factors and explains the steps involved in selecting evaluation factors, structuring and limiting factors, evaluating risk, and expressing the relative importance of the evaluation factors.

Reading and understanding the statement of work (SOW) is the first step in establishing evaluation criteria. The evaluation factors must address the SOW requirements. The work breakdown structure (WBS) is also a helpful tool for writing evaluation criteria.

 

Chapter 4: Scoring Plans and Rating Systems

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The FAR does not specify how agencies should score proposals, so contracting officers have a lot of flexibility in doing so. A scoring plan or rating system is the internal road map an agency uses to apply the evaluation criteria. Each agency uses a different scoring plan; sometimes there are variations between an agency’s divisions or departments. The plan uses a scale of words, colors, numbers, or other indicators to denote the degree to which proposals meet the standards for the non-cost evaluation factors.

The particular scoring method an agency uses is less important than are:

The most commonly used rating systems are:

Agencies frequently use adjectival ratings to score or rate proposals because this method is flexible. The adjectives used indicate the degree to which the proposal meets the standard for each factor evaluated. After reading and evaluating a proposal, the evaluator assigns an appropriate adjectival rating to each factor and significant subfactor. Adjectival systems may be used alone or in connection with other rating systems.2

 

Chapter 5: Writing the Rest of the Solicitation

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This chapter explains what goes into the rest of a request for proposals (RFP), also called a solicitation, including the statement of work and the proposal preparation instructions. Although it seems backwards, evaluation teams should prepare the evaluation criteria (section M) before the proposal preparation instructions (section L). This approach helps ensure that the agency gets the information it needs from offerors in order to evaluate the proposals. The agency can’t write the proposal preparation instructions until it knows what it’s going to evaluate. The proposal preparation instructions tell the offeror to provide the necessary information to meet the requirements established by the evaluation criteria. That’s why the agency must write the evaluation criteria first.

All the parts of a solicitation must work together to communicate the government’s requirements to potential offerors. The RFP provides all the information the offeror must have to understand what the government needs, the acquisition method, and the evaluation criteria, including:

 

Chapter 6: Conducting a Pre-Proposal Conference

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This chapter explains how to conduct and participate in a pre-proposal conference. The pre-proposal conference is an important communication opportunity for both government and industry. The FAR encourages agencies to engage in such exchanges with industry before they receive proposals, as long as they are consistent with procurement integrity requirements. The purpose of exchanging information is to improve potential offerors’ understanding of government requirements and the government’s understanding of industry capabilities. This allows potential offerors to determine if or how they can satisfy the government’s requirements. It also enhances the government’s ability to obtain quality supplies and services at reasonable prices and increases efficiency in proposal preparation, evaluation, negotiation, and contract award.1

Note that we use the term pre-proposal conference instead of bidder’s conference to be consistent with terminology used in negotiated acquisitions. Technically, a bidder’s conference is conducted before an invitation for bid is released.

 

Chapter 7: Preparing the Proposal

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Receiving the final RFP marks an important milestone in the acquisition process. Now the companies that will submit a proposal in response to the RFP are the primary participants. Beginning the proposal-writing process can be intimidating, especially for those vendors new to federal government acquisition. As we’ve seen in the preceding chapters, government acquisition is a formal process, so companies that have a structured approach to responding to the RFP may be more likely to be successful. Chapter 7 explores how companies prepare proposals.

Both government and industry have program managers. To avoid confusion of these terms in this chapter, proposal manager will designate the company’s program manager.

Capture planning is a life cycle process used by both small and large businesses that ensures consistency and discipline in the aggressive pursuit and winning of contracting opportunities.1 The foundation of capture planning is focusing on the customer’s business problem or objective. It is intended to win new business by creating mutually beneficial offers that solve the customer’s problems and meet the company’s profitability and risk requirements.

 

Chapter 8: Preparing for Proposal Evaluations

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While offerors are preparing proposals, agencies should train the proposal evaluators. The best time to conduct source selection training is after the final RFP is released, while the offerors prepare their proposals. This training and orientation gives the source selection managers and evaluators the background and information necessary to conduct a fair and effective evaluation, including the agency’s objectives, the evaluation factors, and the requirements each offeror’s proposal must meet. The evaluators will develop a common understanding of what to look for and how to interpret what they find and will learn the procedures for documenting their findings.1

It’s important to remember that the evaluators may or may not be the same people as those involved in writing the acquisition plan, evaluation criteria, and statement of work. This is why the evaluators need training regarding the source selection’s objectives, including the acquisition plan, RFP elements, and evaluation procedures. Scheduling the training for after the RFP release and before proposal submission gives the agency sufficient time to let the evaluators practice using the forms and software, if they are going to use an electronic tool.

 

Chapter 9: Evaluating Proposals

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Once the offerors have submitted their proposals, and the contracting officer (CO) has determined if the proposals are acceptable for evaluation, the evaluators read and assess the proposals in accordance with the RFP’s evaluation criteria and the agency’s procedures, which are sometimes documented in a source selection plan or a source selection evaluation guide.

It’s important to note that although the evaluators score the proposals, that score does not make the source selection decision. Scores must not be used as the primary justification for contract award. Rather, the evaluators’ written narratives, which identify the proposal strengths, weaknesses, and risks upon which the scores are based, are the primary justification for contract award.1

Evaluators should keep in mind what they learned during training and orientation (covered in detail in Chapter 8), as well as the following four tips while reading and evaluating the proposals:

This chapter explains the proposal evaluation process and the issues that evaluators consider while evaluating technical/management proposals, past performance, cost, and oral presentations. We’ll present case studies that illustrate the topics discussed in each section.

 

Chapter 10: Awarding without Discussions

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At this stage in the source selection process, the initial evaluations are complete, and the source selection authority (SSA) must determine if award without discussions is appropriate or if holding discussions will provide the best value to the government. Of course, awarding without discussions is an option only if the RFP contained the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) provision 52.215-1, which notifies potential offerors of the possibility. To preserve the option of awarding without discussions, many contracting officers (CO) routinely include this clause in all solicitations they issue.

Even if the agency will award the contract without conducting discussions, offerors may be given the opportunity to resolve minor or clerical errors or to clarify certain aspects of their proposals, such as:

Unfortunately, the FAR does not offer much more guidance about when it’s appropriate to award without discussions or when “clarifications” become so extensive as to constitute “discussions.” This chapter discusses some factors to consider before awarding without discussions and highlights relevant case studies. First, we’ll put the decision on whether to hold discussions into perspective by going back to the beginning of the acquisition process: the source selection plan, writing the RFP, and the impact of these documents on the proposals received.

 

Chapter 11: Establishing the Competitive Range

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After the source selection authority (SSA) determines that the agency will get the best value by having discussions, the next step in the process is establishing the competitive range. The FAR states that based on the ratings of each proposal against all evaluation criteria, the contracting officer shall establish a competitive range comprising all of the most highly rated proposals, unless the range is further reduced for purposes of efficiency.1

The FAR offers no guidance on how to determine the competitive range beyond this definition. This lack of guidance gives the agencies a lot of flexibility and, again, underscores the importance of the individual evaluators’ documentation of the proposal evaluations. Note that the contracting officer bases the competitive range determination on the ratings of each proposal against the evaluation criteria—in other words, the evaluators’ documentation.

This chapter explains how to make a competitive range determination and includes case studies that illustrate ways in which this process can go wrong.

 

Chapter 12: Discussions, Negotiations, and Proposal Revisions

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At this stage in the competitive acquisition process, the source selection authority (SSA) has established the competitive range, consisting of the most highly rated proposals, and the evaluation team must get ready to begin the negotiation process. We’re now halfway through the competitive source selection process. In this chapter, we’ll talk about discussions and proposal revisions.

First, we will distinguish between discussions and negotiations. Then we’ll explain some considerations and decisions that must be made before beginning discussions, such as preparing the negotiation plan and determining the method or place for conducting negotiations. Next, we’ll talk about what to discuss during a negotiation, and finally, limits on discussions.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) makes a distinction between discussions and negotiations, but in practice, the terms are used interchangeably. Negotiations are exchanges, in either a competitive or sole source environment, between the government and offerors that an agency conducts with the intent of allowing the offeror to revise its proposal. Negotiations may include bargaining. Bargaining includes:

 

Chapter 13: Making Trade-Off Decisions

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At this stage in the competitive source selection process, the evaluators have assessed the final proposal revisions and are ready to brief the source selection authority (SSA). The SSA makes the contract award decision based on a comparative assessment of the proposals against the source selection criteria stated in the RFP. Although the SSA may use reports and analysis prepared by the evaluators, the final source selection decision must represent the SSA’s independent judgment.

The selection decision must not only identify the differences between proposals, but also their strengths, weaknesses, and risks relative to the stated evaluation factors. The SSA documents the rationale for any business judgments and trade-offs, including the benefits associated with higher cost, if applicable, in the source selection decision document (SSDD).1 If the RFP states that the contract will be awarded to the lowest price technically acceptable offeror, then this trade-off decision-making process will not occur. The SSA would make contract award to the company offering the lowest-priced technically acceptable solution. But if the RFP states that the contract will be awarded using trade-offs to determine the best value, then the SSA needs to make the trade-off determination, which is the subject of this chapter.

 

Chapter 14: Conducting Debriefings

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Debriefing is the final step in the source selection process, provided none of the offerors protest the selection decision. At this point, the source selection authority (SSA) has announced the contract award, notified the unsuccessful offerors of the award decision, and offered to conduct debriefings. In this chapter, we begin by comparing preaward and postaward debriefings, and we explain how, why, and when debriefings are done. Then, we will explain what can and cannot be discussed at a debriefing. We conclude with a brief discussion of the protest clock, which Chapter 15 discusses in greater detail.

There are two types of debriefings: preaward and postaward. Each unsuccessful offeror is entitled to one debriefing. Table 14-1 outlines when each type of debriefing is appropriate and the information that may and may not be disclosed at each. There are more restrictions on what may be disclosed to an unsuccessful offeror at a preaward debriefing because the procurement is still ongoing at the time. Because of these restrictions, some offerors prefer to wait until the postaward debriefing to get more information.

 

Chapter 15: Filing and Responding to Protests

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At this stage in the acquisition cycle, the source selection authority has made the contract award decision, and the contracting officer has conducted debriefings. After being debriefed, offerors sometimes believe that the agency didn’t conduct the source selection in accordance with the RFP or required statutes or regulations. Before filing a protest, however, both parties must make their best effort to quickly resolve concerns raised by an interested party at the contracting officer level through open, frank discussions.1 Speed is important, because there is a very limited window of time in which an offeror has the right to protest. If the parties can’t resolve the issues, the company may file a protest. This chapter explains the protest process, including the avenues available to unsuccessful offerors, and the common reasons companies file protests.

Let’s start with a few definitions so that we can understand all of the dynamics involved in a protest. A protest is a written objection by an interested party to:

 

L-1. General

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Appendix I provides a sample template for writing proposal preparation instructions in section L. Although this template comes from the Defense Acquisition University, it can be applied to civilian requests for proposals (RFPs) as well because it is not DoD-specific.1 Readers can use this template to identify key topics an offeror needs to know to prepare a high-quality proposal.

The offeror shall submit documentation illustrating its approach for satisfying the requirements of this solicitation. The offeror shall describe its proposal through the use of graphs, charts, diagrams, and narrative. The proposal must be clear, coherent, and prepared in sufficient detail for the government to understand and evaluate the nature of the approach against the evaluation criteria.

The proposal shall cover all aspects of this solicitation and shall include the offeror’s approach for integration and program management activities. The proposal must clearly demonstrate how the offeror intends to accomplish the project and must include convincing rationale and substantiation of all claims.

 

L-2. Requirements for Proposal Volumes

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Appendix I provides a sample template for writing proposal preparation instructions in section L. Although this template comes from the Defense Acquisition University, it can be applied to civilian requests for proposals (RFPs) as well because it is not DoD-specific.1 Readers can use this template to identify key topics an offeror needs to know to prepare a high-quality proposal.

The offeror shall submit documentation illustrating its approach for satisfying the requirements of this solicitation. The offeror shall describe its proposal through the use of graphs, charts, diagrams, and narrative. The proposal must be clear, coherent, and prepared in sufficient detail for the government to understand and evaluate the nature of the approach against the evaluation criteria.

The proposal shall cover all aspects of this solicitation and shall include the offeror’s approach for integration and program management activities. The proposal must clearly demonstrate how the offeror intends to accomplish the project and must include convincing rationale and substantiation of all claims.

 

L-3. Communication with the Contracting Office

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Appendix I provides a sample template for writing proposal preparation instructions in section L. Although this template comes from the Defense Acquisition University, it can be applied to civilian requests for proposals (RFPs) as well because it is not DoD-specific.1 Readers can use this template to identify key topics an offeror needs to know to prepare a high-quality proposal.

The offeror shall submit documentation illustrating its approach for satisfying the requirements of this solicitation. The offeror shall describe its proposal through the use of graphs, charts, diagrams, and narrative. The proposal must be clear, coherent, and prepared in sufficient detail for the government to understand and evaluate the nature of the approach against the evaluation criteria.

The proposal shall cover all aspects of this solicitation and shall include the offeror’s approach for integration and program management activities. The proposal must clearly demonstrate how the offeror intends to accomplish the project and must include convincing rationale and substantiation of all claims.

 

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