MANY GOVERNMENT CONTRACTORS OFTEN ASK: “WHY DOES GOVERNMENT CONTRACT SOURCE SELECTION TAKE SO LONG? ALL THEY HAVE TO DO IS READ THE PROPOSALS AND AWARD THE CONTRACT.”
HOWEVER, IT'S NOT THAT SIMPLE.
With experience from both the industry and government sides in the proposal preparation and source selection process, I will explain why the source selection process takes so long. I'll also provide tips for both government and industry to speed up the process.
Foundational Documents: Request for Proposals and Proposal
First, let's review the request for proposals (RFP) and proposal so we have a strong foundation for source selection. The RFP is the guiding document for both proposal preparation and evaluation, so it's critical that the RFP be clearly written. The government can't possibly get good proposals if the RFP is vague or ambiguous.
The RFP provides the framework for the acquisition, including the statement of work (SOW), contract type, evaluation factors, and proposal preparation instructions. The RFP must also state which source selection method will be used: lowest price technically acceptable (LPTA) or tradeoff. LPTA offers the best price to the government after minimum technical requirements have been met. Proposals are evaluated for technical acceptability, but are not ranked based on non-cost factors. Using the tradeoff approach, agencies determine which evaluation factors are most important (which may or may not be cost) and permit award to a company that didn't propose the lowest cost.1
After deciding the source selection method, the agency writes the evaluation criteria. This is an important step in the process because it impacts both proposal preparation and evaluation. The evaluation criteria should address critical SOW requirements. They should also be variable, measurable, and determinant—meaning that there should be a reasonable expectation of variance among offerors that are measurable and respond to the agency's needs. For example, an evaluation factor is determinant if an agency is willing to pay more for higher quality.2
The RFP must state whether all evaluation factors other than cost or price, when combined, are:
- Significantly more important than cost or price,
- Approximately equal to cost or price, or
- Significantly less important than cost or price.3
Next, the contracting officer writes the proposal preparation instructions (PPI). It's important to write the PPI after the evaluation factors to make sure you get the necessary information in proposals that apply to the evaluation factors.
The PPI should:
- Describe how offerors should submit proposals;
- Be keyed to the evaluation factors and subfactors;
- Describe the type, scope, content, and format of the information required;
- Describe the order in which proposals should respond to RFP requirements; and
- Be limited to information needed to evaluate proposals.4
It's important that the solicitation only request the information needed to evaluate proposals against the evaluation factors. Contracting officers should avoid requiring unnecessary data that might discourage offerors from submitting proposals and can make source selection take longer.
The PPI essentially provide a roadmap for offerors, so they should be clear and concise. Well written PPI can also can simplify the evaluators’ job. For example, if the proposals are similarly formatted, evaluators will be able to complete their assessments more quickly.
Before releasing the RFP, make sure there is connectivity between the SOW, evaluation factors, and the proposal preparation instructions.
Next, let's explore proposal preparation. Proposals should be clear, coherent, and detailed enough for evaluators to assess them against the evaluation criteria. Proposals must also include convincing rationale that the company can do what it proposes. “A successful proposal not only responds to the RFP requirements, but also does it better than any other proposal.”6
Just as the agency should make sure the RFP sections map (SOW, PPI, and evaluation factors), companies should also conduct a final review of the proposal to make sure it meets all of the RFP's requirements. A good way to do this is to prepare a “proposal compliance matrix,” which is a cross-reference table that tells evaluators where they can find responses to specific RFP requirements.
Some of you may be asking, “What does this have to do with source selection?” Plenty! The RFP is the foundational document for offerors to decide if they're going to submit a proposal. It also provides a roadmap for proposal preparation. There is a direct correlation between RFP quality, proposal quality, and the ease with which the agency completes the source selection process.
After contracting officers receive proposals, they must record the date and time they were received and ensure that proposals are safeguarded from unauthorized disclosure throughout the source selection process.7 Before evaluators start proposal evaluation, the contracting officer reviews each proposal to make sure it complies with the proposal preparation instructions.
If the RFP PPI specifies a page limit for proposals, the contracting officer counts pages before releasing proposals to evaluators. The contracting officer should pay particular attention to ploys to bypass the page limit. For example, an offeror could number pages “5,” “5a,” and “5b,” which is really three pages, but an offeror may count this as just one page.8
It is important to note that several months may have elapsed since writing the RFP, so it's critical that all of the evaluators understand how to apply the evaluation criteria. In some situations, the evaluators may not have written the evaluation factors.
According to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), proposal evaluation is an assessment of the proposal and the offeror's ability to perform the prospective contract successfully. An agency evaluates proposals and their relative qualities based only on the factors identified in the RFP. The relative strengths, deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and risks supporting proposal evaluation shall be documented in the contract file.9
Each agency conducts source selection differently, but the basic objective remains constant: to provide the source selection authority with sufficient information to make an informed and reasoned selection. That's why it's important for the evaluators to identify deficiencies, strengths, weaknesses, clarifications, and uncertainties in each proposal and document the results.
Many source selections involve collaborative teams of evaluators and advisors, so managing the evaluation is an important part of keeping the process on schedule. In some cases, the contracting officer and a couple of technical personnel might evaluate proposals. If the anticipated contract is a high dollar value or very complex, or has high visibility in the agency, teams may be assigned to evaluate the proposals. In complex acquisitions, one person might be assigned to manage each evaluation factor for that proposal volume. For example, if there are four technical evaluation factors, there would be four factor managers in charge of evaluating each specific evaluation factor. These managers should have resilient leadership skills and strong technical knowledge about the topic being evaluated.10
The source selection process depends on the complexity of the requirement, the number of proposals received, and the personnel available to be evaluators. Some evaluators are assigned to the source selection on a full-time basis; others evaluate proposals while continuing with their other responsibilities. Full-time versus part-time evaluators can significantly impact the speed with which the evaluations are completed.
The proposal evaluation process typically has four steps:
- Identify and document proposal deficiencies, weaknesses, or significant weaknesses;
- Identify and document proposal strengths, weaknesses, risks, and deficiencies;
- Assign ratings for non-cost evaluation factors (when using the tradeoff process); and
- Prepare a summary evaluation report.
While conducting the evaluation, it's important for the evaluators to stay focused on the following tasks:
- Evaluate only what is actually written in the proposal,
- Follow the evaluation criteria stated in the RFP, and
- Do not make comparisons between proposals.11
The technical/management evaluators may begin with a quick read of the proposals, skimming them to get familiar with the format and content. No assessment, judgment, or evaluation is done at this time. After the quick read, the evaluators read the technical/management volumes of the proposal to get a thorough understanding of the proposed approach. They conduct an in-depth, systematic evaluation of the proposals against the evaluation factors in the RFP, which they must apply consistently. Evaluators should conduct an equitable, impartial, and comprehensive evaluation of each proposal against the solicitation requirements. The evaluators should also review the offeror's basis of estimate to understand the proposed staffing levels and overall technical/management approach.12
Evaluators also write evaluation reports to document the evaluation in addition to other forms if they have questions about a proposal. Evaluation forms vary between agencies, but typically include the following (although they may have different names):
- Clarification requests,
- Information requests,
- Significant weakness reports, and
- Deficiency reports.
These forms are then summarized and sent to offerors if clarifications or discussions are necessary.13
Evaluating cost proposals takes a different path. The cost evaluators are responsible for evaluating the proposed cost or price of the proposals and establishing price reasonableness. They look for inconsistencies, math errors, logic errors, unsupported assertions, and inappropriate estimating methodologies in each cost proposal.14 Cost evaluators assess the cost proposals’ completeness, reasonableness, and realism. When contracting on a cost-reimbursement basis, evaluators must perform a cost realism analysis to determine what the government should realistically expect to pay for the proposed effort, how well each offeror understands the work, and whether each offeror is able to perform the contract. Cost realism analysis is:
[T]he process of independently reviewing and evaluating specific elements of each offeror's proposed cost estimate to determine if the estimated proposed cost elements are realistic for the work proposed; reflect a clear understanding of the requirements; and are consistent with the unique methods of performance and materials described in the offeror's technical proposal.15
The FAR does not specify how agencies should score proposals, so contracting officers have a lot of flexibility. A scoring or rating system is the internal road map an agency uses to apply the evaluation criteria. Agencies may use different scoring methods and there may be variations within an agency. The scoring method can use adjectives, colors, or numbers to identify how well proposals meet the standards for the non-cost evaluation factors.
The particular scoring method an agency uses is less important than:
- The consistency with which the evaluators apply the selected method to all competing proposals, or
- The thoroughness of the narrative used to support the rating.16
Agencies frequently use adjectival ratings to score proposals because it's flexible. The adjectives used indicate the degree to which the proposal meets the standard for each factor evaluated. Typical adjectives used include:
- “Very good,”
- “Marginal,” and
After reading and evaluating a proposal, the evaluator assigns an appropriate adjective to each factor.17
The color coding system uses colors to indicate the degree to which an offeror's proposal meets the standard for each factor evaluated. Like the adjectival method, color coding is a flexible system. Agencies use different colors and definitions for each color, but generally “blue” is the highest possible rating and “red” the lowest possible rating, and the colors in between vary.18
The numerical system assigns point scores (such as “0 to 10,” “0 to 100,” or “0 to 1,000”) to score proposals. This rating system generally allows for more rating levels and may appear to give more precise distinctions of merit. Numerical systems aren't always appropriate, however, because they may provide a false sense of mathematical precision that can be distorted depending upon the evaluation factors and the standards used.19 In fact, some agencies prohibit numerical rating systems.20
In addition to scoring the proposals, evaluators also assess risk.
Risk can be assessed on both past performance and technical proposals. The purpose of the past performance evaluation is to assess the offeror's probability of meeting the solicitation requirements based on the offeror's demonstrated past performance. Technical risk assesses the degree to which the offeror's proposed technical approach for the requirements of the solicitation may cause disruption of schedule, increased costs, degradation of performance, the need for increased government oversight, or the likelihood of unsuccessful contract performance.21
Evaluators typically score each evaluation factor along with risk for each proposal. Therefore, the more evaluation factors in the RFP, the longer it takes to evaluate all of the proposals. This is why it's recommended to limit the number of evaluation factors to the most important ones.
Evaluating proposals involves more than just reading the proposals. Documenting the rationale for the scores and risks is an important part of the process as well.
Evaluators document and justify proposal strengths and weaknesses for each factor. They should be thorough in writing the narratives that support their evaluation and rating scores because the agency uses them for several important purposes, such as:
- Explaining individual evaluations during the consensus process,
- Developing briefings for the source selection authority (SSA) that are used to determine the competitive range and the successful offeror, and
- Preparing debriefings for unsuccessful offerors.
The supporting narrative also helps ensure that the evaluators consistently applied the criteria.
Proper documentation of the entire source selection process is a critical aspect of source selection. The source selection authority will base his or her decision on a comparative assessment of proposals against all source selection criteria in the solicitation, so proper documentation will help the SSA understand the rationale the evaluation team used.22
After documenting the proposal scoring, evaluators meet to reach a consensus.
Reaching consensus requires a meeting of the minds on the assigned ratings and associated deficiencies, strengths, weaknesses, and risks.23 Evaluators discuss the rationale for their individual scores and reach consensus. Consensus meetings on a particular evaluation factor should continue until all panel members reach a consensus or the panel members agree to disagree. If the group cannot reach a consensus on a single score or rating, the panel should record the minority opinion (and rating) in the report.24
Evaluators repeat the consensus process for every evaluation factor for each proposal.
BRIEFING THE SSA
After reaching consensus, the evaluators brief the SSA on the evaluation results. The SSA determines if the agency will award the contract without discussions or to conduct discussions. Awarding without discussions is only an option if the RFP included FAR 52.215-1, notifying offerors of the possibility.
It's important to note that a company doesn't have to have a perfect proposal to win the contract without discussions. It means that the proposal met the government's needs in accordance with the evaluation criteria at a fair and reasonable price. The evaluators may discover weaknesses in the proposal, but that does not preclude the agency from awarding without discussions. “There is no such thing as a perfect RFP, a perfect proposal, or a perfect contract. Agencies must be willing to accept inherent reasonable weaknesses in proposals in order to award without discussions.”25
All of these steps are done for each proposal volume submitted. So, you can understand that a source selection with a lot of proposals would take a long time to evaluate. And this is before discussions. Before conducting discussions, the contracting officer must first establish the competitive range that is comprised of the most highly rated proposals.26
“The primary objective of discussions is to maximize the government's ability to obtain best value, based on the requirement and the evaluation factors set forth in the solicitation.”27 The discussions should be tailored to each proposal within the competitive range.
At a minimum, the contracting officer must discuss deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and adverse past performance information to which the offeror has not yet had an opportunity to respond. The contracting officer may also discuss other aspects of the offeror's proposal that could be altered to increase the potential for award. The contracting officer is not required, however, to discuss every way in which the proposal could be improved. The scope and extent of discussions are a matter of the contracting officer's judgment, but they must be meaningful.28
A proposal revision is a change to a proposal made after the solicitation closing date, at the request of, or as allowed by, the contracting officer.29 The contracting officer may request or allow proposal revisions to clarify ambiguities or document understandings reached during negotiations. Proposal revisions may occur on an interim basis and/ or at the end of the process. The FAR only requires final proposal revisions, so offerors may not be able to submit interim proposal revisions.30
After receiving final proposal revisions, the evaluators need to evaluate them just as they did the initial proposal evaluations, applying the same standards and criteria as before. Afterward, the source selection authority reviews their evaluations and makes the source selection decision.
The SSA makes the contract award decision based on a comparative assessment of the proposals against the source selection criteria stated in the RFP. 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 tradeoffs, including the benefits associated with higher cost, if applicable, in the source selection decision document.31
Now you understand why proposal evaluation and source selection take so long. It is much more demanding than simply reading proposals. The evaluators must evaluate proposals, determine the score, and document the rationale for the decision for each evaluation factor and for each proposal. In the consensus sessions, they reach an agreement on a final score for each proposal before briefing the SSA. Add to that negotiations and proposal revisions and you can see how the days, weeks, and sometimes months add up. This is why government contract source selection takes so long. Preparing proposals is expensive and time-consuming, so offerors should be assured that the evaluation was fair and impartial.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MARGE RUMBAUGH, CPCM, FELLOW, is a member of the Philadelphia Chapter of NCMA and has been an NCMA member for 30 years. She is a nationally recognized author and educator currently teaching contract management courses for Villanova University's online certificate program and NCMA's Online CPCM Preparatory Course. She is a member of NCMA's Board of Advisors and received NCMA's Charles A. Dana Distinguished Service Award in 2014.
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- See Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 15.101.
- See Margaret G. Rumbaugh, Understanding Government Contract Source Selection (Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, 2010): 85-86.
- FAR 15.304 (e).
- See Johnnie E. Wilson, Best Value Source Selection (Alexandria, VA: Army Materiel Command, 1998): 15.
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 168.
- Ibid., at 226.
- See FAR 15.207.
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 249.
- FAR 15.305(a).
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 269.
- See Peter S. Cole, How to Evaluate and Negotiate Government Contracts (Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, 2001).
- Source Selection Manual (Chantilly, VA: National Reconnaissance Office, 2000): 139-143.
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 271-272.
- NRO Source Selection (N87) (Chantilly, VA: National Reconnaissance Office, 2008): 38-39.
- FAR 15.404-1(d)(1).
- See Harold V. Hanson, NAVSEA Source Selection Guide (Washington, DC: U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command, 2001): 23.
- See Source Selection Guide (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy, 2005): 11.
- Rumbaugh, note 2, at 136.
- See Source Selection Guide, op cit.
- See Wilson, note 4.
- Department of Defense Acquisition Technology and Logistics Source Selection Procedures Memo (March 4, 2011).
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 310.
- See Claude M. Bolton, Jr., Army Source Selection Manual (Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology), 2007): 29.
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 314-316.
- Ibid., at 325.
- As per FAR 15.306(c).
- FAR 15.306(d).
- FAR 15.306(d)(3).
- FAR 15.001.
- See Rumbaugh, note 2, at 366.
- FAR 15.308.