Lessons learned in Strength-Based Winning® from GAO’s Protest Docket

Part 2 – Lessons you can use to improve your proposals

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) Protest Docket is one of the best sources of information to learn how the government grades best value competitions. The Docket explains the proposal requirements, how the government graded the proposal, and their justification for the score. Here’s a summary of five cases from GAO’s December 2022 Protest Docket with lessons you can use to improve your proposals. Our summary deletes references to the solicitation name, protester, and winners(s) to focus on key messages from GAO’s findings.

Agency: Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

  • The score: The government rated the technical, management, staffing, and experience sections using a confidence rating (high, medium, and low). The government gave the protester’s proposal a rating of medium confidence for its technical and management sections and high confidence for its staffing and corporate experience sections. The winner earned high confidence scores across all four sections.
  • The issues: The government downgraded the protester’s technical score to medium confidence because it “lacked adequate detail and substantive explanations on the work to be provided under the resultant BPA.” Therefore, evaluators considered the protester’s risk of unsuccessful performance as moderate. In addition, the protester’s approach lacked details concerning how it would achieve the required outcomes. In addition, the RFP instructed offerors that quotations “shall contain zero to minimal typographical errors since it reflects the [vendor’s] quality of work.” However, the protester’s proposal “contained an inordinate number of typographical errors, including several that rendered the meaning of certain statements meaningless and hindered the [technical evaluation team’s] and [contracting officer’s] ability to understand the approach.”
  • The lessons learned: Verify that your proposal contains a detailed description of your approach and how the approach achieves the customer’s requirements. Provide relevant proof points to support your approach and explain how it mitigates risk. Conduct an independent editorial review of your proposal before submission. Avoid having writers review their work because they never see their mistakes.

Agency: Missile Defense Agency (MDA)

  • The score: The government evaluated six equal subfactors: (1) innovation, science, and technology; (2) test and performance analyses; (3) cybersecurity engineering; (4) space systems; (5) Israeli programs; and (6) human capital management using adjectival ratings (outstanding, good, acceptable, marginal, or unacceptable). The government also rated three non-cost factors as acceptable or unacceptable. The protester scored four strengths, six weaknesses, five significant weaknesses, and three deficiencies across the six evaluation criteria and received all acceptable ratings for the three non-cost factors.
  • The issue: Based on the evaluation, the source selection authority (SSA) excluded the protester from the competitive range because its “proposal did not demonstrate technical knowledge in multiple areas that are important to the MDA mission.” The offeror protested the decision, but the government denied it.
  • The lesson learned: There is a dichotomy between the way industry and government review proposals. Industry reviews the proposal’s text, while the government scores the proposal. Therefore, a good review of the proposal against the evaluated criteria could have identified its numerous weaknesses, significant weaknesses, and deficiencies early in the proposal process.

Agency: U.S. Army

  • The score: The government assigned each management/technical proposal an adjectival rating (outstanding, good, acceptable, marginal, or unacceptable). The solicitation defined an outstanding rating as a proposal that “indicates an exceptional approach and understanding of the requirements and contains multiple strengths, and risk of unsuccessful performance is very low.” The protester earned a score of good for its technical/management section and satisfactory confidence for its past performance. The winner had the same score, but its price was 5% lower.
  • The issue: The protester challenged the reasonableness of the agency’s evaluation based on variations between the agency’s original evaluation of its proposal and its final proposal response after clarifications. The government held that changes to its prior evaluation conclusions do not provide a basis to sustain a protest on the reasonableness of its final evaluation conclusions. In addition, the protester did not demonstrate that the agency’s final conclusions were unreasonable or inconsistent with the stated evaluation criteria.
  • The lesson learned: The government has wide latitude in scoring proposals. Final proposal scores outrank initial scores. Shoot for the highest score possible in your submission, and provide the government with firm evidence to substantiate your score.

Agency: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)

  • The score: The government used a multi-stage selection process. In stage one, the offerors submitted their past performances. The winner and protester both received high confidence ratings. In round two, they submitted oral presentations. Again, the protester and winner both received high confidence scores. However, the winner’s cost was $15M or 10% higher than the protester’s price.
  • The issue: The protester contended that its proposal was superior to the winner’s proposal in several respects, including its capability maturity model integration (CMMI) certification, scaled agile framework (SAFe) lean agile principles, direct experience, and superior staffing. The government found that although the protester challenged the evaluation of technical proposals under the corporate experience and oral presentation/technical demonstration factors, the selection of the winner was reasonable and denied the protest.
  • The lessons learned: Do your homework. First, understand your competitor’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Then, provide discriminating strengths that deliver more benefit to the customer. Also, watch your price.

Agency: Department of Agriculture (DOA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

  • The score: The government assigned a confidence rating to the prior experience, technical approach, and oral presentation. The winner and protester received scores of high confidence across all three criteria. The winner’s price was $1.3M higher than the protester’s.
  • The issues: The protester contends that the agency’s evaluation of its proposal under the prior experience and technical approach factors should have found that certain aspects of the protester’s proposal increased confidence. It also argued that the agency unreasonably found that several aspects of the winner’s proposal decreased confidence.
  • The lesson learned: The government may score a proposal subjectively, and the strengths you identified and substantiated may not be viewed the same way by the government. The government has wide latitude in assigning scores. Therefore, it is essential that you clearly understand what the government considers a strength for scoring purposes. Ensure your strengths are discriminators that greatly benefit operations while reducing risk.

New Lessons Learned blog each month

Lohfeld Consulting Group will follow the GAO Protest Docket for the next 6 months, so look for a new blog on the first week of each month.

By Brenda Crist, Vice President at Lohfeld Consulting Group, MPA, CPP APMP Fellow

Lohfeld Consulting Group has proven results specializing in helping companies create winning captures and proposals.
As the premier capture and proposal services consulting firm focused exclusively on government markets, we provide expert assistance to government contractors in Capture Planning and Strategy, Proposal Management and Writing, Capture and Proposal Process and Infrastructure, and Training. In the last 3 years, we’ve supported over 550 proposals winning more than $170B for our clients—including the Top 10 government contractors. Lohfeld Consulting Group is your “go-to” capture and proposal source! Start winning by contacting us at www.lohfeldconsulting.com and join us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.