“Rule of Two” Cheat Sheet

Merle M. DeLancey Jr.

June 2021 marked the five-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Kingdomware decision[1], which is best known for broadly interpreting the so-called “Rule of Two” requirement flowing from the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006 (the “VBA”). The Rule has been criticized for delaying Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) procurements and increasing the prices the government pays for goods and services. However, the importance of the Rule’s purpose—to prioritize and increase the government’s use of small businesses owned by veterans—cannot be credibly challenged.

Over the past five years, the Federal Circuit, Court of Federal Claims, and Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) protest decisions have created some bright-line rules interpreting the VBA’s Rule of Two. After a brief summary of the Rule of Two, this post lays out these bright-line rules, and concludes with predictions regarding future VBA Rule of Two protests.

Continue reading ““Rule of Two” Cheat Sheet”

Surviving Proposal Weaknesses after Discussions: What Not to Do

Albert B. Krachman

With apologies to Paul Simon, this is another in a series of articles on the 50 ways contractors can lose awards on federal contracts. These cautionary tales should inform anyone in a contractor organization with responsibility for authorizing, preparing, or negotiating competitive federal contract proposals.

Like the inverse of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People bestseller, the mistakes that lead to lost awards are well known and include: carelessness, greed, lack of attention to detail, procrastination, and cursory (or omitted) red-team reviews. This article highlights another surefire path to disaster: failing to adequately correct proposal weaknesses after discussions.

This lesson arises out of a clash between BNA and Lexis, legal search titans, over a U.S. Treasury contract. The combatants were seeking award of a contract for electronic research services for IRS staff, described in a GAO Bid Protest decision, LexisNexis, a Division of RELX Inc., B-418885; B-418885.2 (October 8, 2020).

Treasury’s solicitation required that offerors both describe their search solutions in technical proposals, and have a working computing solution, active for government testing. After initial proposal submissions and initial evaluations, the government advised offerors of weaknesses and deficiencies in their proposals and in their computing solutions. Treasury advised Lexis that its proposal suffered from a significant weakness due to Lexis’ computing solution’s return of erroneous search results. Discussions were opened and offerors were permitted to submit final proposal revisions. Offerors were also permitted to correct any deficiencies in their computing solutions before another round of government testing.

Continue reading “Surviving Proposal Weaknesses after Discussions: What Not to Do”

Foul but No Harm? Strict FAR Compliance Can Be a One-Way Street

Albert B. Krachman

Contractors and contractor teams competing for set-aside contracts should internalize the Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) compliance lesson imparted by a recent Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) protest decision related to small business set-aside procurements. In Kira Training Services, LLC, B-419149.3 (January 4, 2021) GAO illustrated that in the set-aside area, an Agency can violate a mandatory FAR provision, but a contractor cannot complain unless it takes timely proactive steps to protect itself from the government error. In Kira, GAO found that on a set-aside contract, the Navy violated the FAR by not sending the required pre-award list of intended awardees to all offerors, but the small business protester was not competitively prejudiced by the Navy error because it failed to protect itself by filing a post-award size protest.

The purpose of the pre-award notice on small business set aside contracts is to allow competitors to timely file size protests against proposed awardees who may not be an eligible small business. The regulations make it more advantageous for a bidder to challenge a competitor’s size before award, as opposed to post award, when an adverse size or status ruling may not prevent the government from proceeding with the challenged procurement even if the size protest is sustained.

Continue reading “Foul but No Harm? Strict FAR Compliance Can Be a One-Way Street”

Majority of FY 2020 Protests Find Some Success at GAO

Luke W. Meier and Scott Arnold

The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) has released its Annual Report to Congress summarizing bid protest activity for Fiscal Year 2020 (GAO-21-281SP). The report shows that, in a unique year where COVID-19 altered procurement practices and priorities, protest activity at GAO was remarkably stable. Of note, GAO’s “effectiveness rate” this year topped 50 percent, meaning most protests resulted in some form of relief. The number of task order protests continues to increase, despite a modest dip in overall protests. Unsurprisingly, again there were very few hearings.

The chart below summarizes the GAO protest statistics from FY 2015 to FY 2020.

Here are four key takeaways from the latest report.

Continue reading “Majority of FY 2020 Protests Find Some Success at GAO”

Blank Rome Represents Qbase LLC in Successful GAO Protest of DOJ Award Bid for IT Support Contract

A Blank Rome government contracts team obtained relief for Qbase LLC in a protest before the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) involving the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) failure to award a $4.5 billion IT support contract to Qbase, a computer-related services and consulting provider.

The GAO concluded that the DOJ’s determination of which contract proposal provided the best value to the government was unreasonable because the DOJ failed to meaningfully consider the price of the proposals. Moreover, in its assessment of the proposals’ technical merit, instead of performing the required qualitative assessment of each offeror’s technical proposal, the DOJ unreasonably based its determination on a mechanical comparison of adjectival ratings (“very good,” “satisfactory”) between the offerors. In its decision, the GAO stated, “In sum, the agency’s best-value determination is unreasonable because the agency performed a mechanical tradeoff analysis that failed to meaningfully consider price and resulted in the exclusion of technically acceptable proposals from consideration for award.” The GAO sustained the protest, recommended that the DOJ conduct a new best-value analysis giving proper weight to pricing, and awarded Qbase its attorneys’ fees.

For more information, please read GAO Says DOJ Unfairly Assessed Bids On $4.5B IT Deal (Law360, November 20, 2020).

The Blank Rome team included Richard J. ConwayAdam Proujansky, and Michael J. Slattery.

Fifty Ways to Lose Your Federal Contract Award – Part 1: Failing to Secure Your Key Person Supply Chain

Albert B. Krachman

With apologies to Paul Simon, this is Part 1 of a series of articles on the many ways contractors can lose awards on federal contracts. These cautionary tales should inform anyone in a contractor organization with responsibility for authorizing, preparing, or negotiating competitive federal proposals.

Like a prize-winning recipe, the ingredients for losing an award are well known: one part carelessness, a pinch of greed, and some lack of attention to detail. Throw in a dash of procrastination, a late proposal revision, and then garnish it with an 11th-hour e-mailing of your proposal. Voila—you have cooked up a complete waste of proposal resources! 

We kick off this series with a story of an incumbent contractor who lost a billion-dollar follow-on contract by failing to contractually secure the services of a key person designated in the proposal.

Continue reading “Fifty Ways to Lose Your Federal Contract Award – Part 1: Failing to Secure Your Key Person Supply Chain”

GAO Signals More Demanding Approach to Corrective Action Dismissals

Luke W. Meier

About a third of U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) protests end because an agency decides to take voluntary corrective action. (This is evidenced by the ~30 percent difference between GAO’s “Sustain” rate and “Effectiveness” rate.) While it is considered a “win,” voluntary corrective action can be frustrating for protesters who may have no assurance their concerns will truly be addressed. Agencies often say little about what the corrective action will entail. When they do discuss specific steps to be taken, agencies often list various actions they may or may not take, depending on further assessment as the corrective action unfolds. Historically, GAO has largely brushed aside complaints about these uncertainties. When an agency announces its intent to take corrective action, the perfunctory next step has been a quick dismissal of the protest.

In a recent decision, however, GAO signaled a willingness to demand more from agencies seeking a dismissal based on corrective action. Continue reading “GAO Signals More Demanding Approach to Corrective Action Dismissals”

Government Reliance on Waiver Argument to Keep Price Adjustment Windfall Fails

Scott Arnold

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit articulated limits to the government’s ability to rely on the waiver doctrine to enforce Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) provisions of questionable legality, and, in so doing, cast doubt on the government’s “heads we win, tails you lose” approach to measuring the cost impact of simultaneous changes to a contractor’s cost accounting practices.

In The Boeing Company v. United States, 2019-2148 (Aug. 10, 2020), the Federal Circuit rejected the government’s argument that Boeing’s claim—which was based on an apparent conflict between (1) a statutory provision limiting the costs the government may recover for cost accounting practice changes to the aggregate increased cost to the government, and (2) a FAR provision under which the government’s recovery considers only the changes that increase costs to the government, and disregards changes that decrease costs to the government—was waived because Boeing did not raise the issue prior to contract award. Continue reading “Government Reliance on Waiver Argument to Keep Price Adjustment Windfall Fails”

Adapting JV Proposal Strategies after GAO Downgrade Ruling

Albert B. Krachman

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office decision involving a Small Business Administration-approved small business joint venture, or JV, suggests that JVs between large and small firms should adjust their proposal strategies to avoid downgrades on past performance when the small business JV member, and the JV itself, lack relevant past performance.

Background

Proposing on a set-aside contract as an SBA-approved JV between a small and large business has been an effective strategy for many years. A basic assumption of this approach—and a primary motivation for using a JV structure—has been that an agency evaluating the JV’s past performance would normally look at the combined past performance of the JV members.

In many respects, this evaluation assumption has been a main motivation for using the JV structure, in contrast to a prime-subcontractor structure.

Typically, the large business JV member will have greater and more relevant past performance than the small business. The thinking had been that the JV structure would allow both members to leverage the large JV partner’s past performance for evaluation purposes by imputing the large business’ past performance to the JV.

However, the recent GAO bid protest decision in ProSecure LLC calls this assumption into doubt, suggesting the need for adjustments to proposal strategies for large and small firms in JVs or that plan to use JVs.

To read the full article, please click here.

“Adapting JV Proposal Strategies after GAO Downgrade Ruling,” by Albert B. Krachman was first published in Law360 on June 17, 2020.

DOD’s Extraction of Data Rights in Competitive Procurements

Scott Arnold

When the Department of Defense (“DOD”) procures defense items that require substantial investment to design, test, and manufacture, it often seeks to acquire, along with these products, the contractor’s technical data package (“TDP”) used to build the product. Complete TDPs can facilitate effective competition—perhaps by neutralizing an otherwise daunting incumbent’s advantage—when the products are up for rebid a few years later. But in seeking TDPs—and rights in technical data and computer software (collectively “data”) generally—the DOD is prohibited from requiring a contractor, as a condition of obtaining a contract, to relinquish greater rights in data deliverables than the DOD is otherwise entitled to obtain based on who funded the development of the data. See DOD Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (“DFARS”) 227.7103-1(c), 227.7203-1(c).

Notwithstanding this prohibition, the DOD frequently obtains greater data rights than it is entitled to based on actual funding of the development—i.e., limited rights (development privately funded), government purpose rights (mixed funding), and unlimited rights (development funded by the government). How does this happen?

Bid protests challenging DOD attempts to extract greater rights in data than it is entitled as a condition for contract award have been rare. In Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, B-416027 (May 22, 2018), the protester complained that the Air Force sought a minimum of government purpose rights in software regardless of funding source (i.e., even if the software had been funded exclusively at private expense). While the argument made sense on the merits, it was untimely filed, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office refused to consider the argument even though it could have done so based on the “significant issue” exception to its timeliness rules. The protest still had an impact, however. Subsequent to the protest, the Air Force clarified its intent and disclaimed any intent to insist upon government purpose rights as a minimum.

The Air Force’s walk-back of its Request for Proposal language—which did seem to communicate an insistence upon at least government purpose rights—apparently reflected the Air Force’s recognition that such insistence was unlawful. And perhaps, as a practical matter, the Air Force recognized that there are ways to incentivize offerors to provide greater data rights than they are otherwise required to—without making such provisions an express condition for award.

An incentivizing technique used frequently by DOD procurement offices in recent years is making optional the provision of a robust TDP. This may include the government’s right to provide the data to the contractor’s competitors in future procurements even where the source of development funding would not normally grant the government such authority. In such procurements, an offeror can choose whether to offer a TDP with greater data rights than that to which the government would otherwise be entitled. An offeror who chooses not to offer such a package would still be considered eligible for award—if this was not the case, the DOD would be violating the DFARS by making award eligibility conditional upon providing greater rights than that to which the DOD is entitled. But an offeror who does offer greater rights than those to which the DOD would otherwise be entitled would receive additional credit in the evaluation.

Evaluation credit typically takes the form of an adjustment to the offeror’s evaluated price. For example, the solicitation may provide that, to the extent an offeror proposes to provide a “perfect” TDP, giving the DOD maximum flexibility to provide the TDP to the offeror’s competitors, the offeror’s proposed price will be adjusted downward for purposes of evaluation by a significant amount, such as $100,000 or more. TDPs that are less than optimal but that still provide some value to the DOD would be a assigned a more modest credit. Offerors who choose not to offer TDPs receive no price evaluation credit.

If you are scratching your head, wondering whether an offeror who chooses not to offer an optional TDP effectively takes itself out of the running for a realistic chance of award, that is understandable. And if that possibility means that, as practical matter, optional TDPs really are not optional—or are optional only for companies that want to compete in significant DOD procurements with no real chance of winning—an argument can be made that such evaluation scheme is at odds with the DFARS, and defeats the purpose of the underlying regulation. This issue has not been addressed in any published protests.

Deciding whether to voluntarily grant greater TDP rights is a weighty decision that concerns interests beyond the immediate competition. Contractors evaluating whether and how to respond to DOD requests for more extensive data rights, particularly in the competitive procurement context, must consider:

  1. How will providing such rights impact the contractor’s overall business?
  2. To the extent such impacts may be adverse, do the potential upsides of winning the contract make up for this?
  3. If not, can the solicitation be challenged as unlawfully conditioning contract award eligibility on provision of data rights to which the DOD is not entitled?

If the answer to question three is yes, the contractor must be proactive and, to avoid the fate of Sikorsky, raise any protest challenging the solicitation prior to the deadline for receipt of proposals.