Recently on the blog, I covered one of the major risks encountered by construction contractors – subsurface or unexpected physical conditions discovered after the work begins (commonly known as  Differing Site Conditions under Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 52.236-2).

In that post, I explained that a government contractor that uncovers a Differing Site Condition on a federal project must take three basic steps:

(1) Properly document the condition

(2) Notify the government, and

(3) Preserve the right to bring a Request for Equitable Adjustment or Certified Claim.

Today, I’d like to drill down on the second requirement – providing proper notice to the government – by examining a recent decision from U.S. Court of Federal Claims (COFC).

The case concerned a contractor seeking additional compensation in connection with its performance of a construction contract with the International Boundary and Water Commission (for the widening and rehabilitation of the top surface of the Urban Presidio Level in Presidio, Texas).  The contractor was required to test the embankment soil to ensure compliance with certain performance specifications, including moisture content and compaction.

The contractor struggled to achieve the required soil conditions and, accordingly, experienced project delays.  The contractor sought to shift responsibility for the delays to the government, arguing that it was required to place the embankment material over an “unacceptable, non-constructible subgrade.” Specifically, the contractor alleged that the contract documents misrepresented the site’s subgrade conditions, resulting in a differing site condition under FAR 52.236-2.

The government sought summary judgment on the contractor’s claim based on an allegedly unreasonable contract interpretation.  That is, the government argued that no reasonable contractor would have interpreted the contract documents as indicating that the project’s subgrade would meet the embankment specifications.  Additionally, the government claimed that – even if there was a differing site condition – the contractor failed to provide adequate notice.

On the latter point, the contractor did not dispute that it failed to provide formal notice, but nevertheless argued that the government was “constructively” on notice of the subgrade condition.  The COFC disagreed, finding that “constructive notice” may only take the place of actual notice where there is no prejudice to the government.  Simply stated, the contractor must communicate with the contracting officer when or if it discovers a condition that does not meet its expectations.

In this case, the contractor did not provide such notice and, moreover, waited for more than a year to raise the issue through a request for equitable adjustment.

The takeaway for contractors is an easy one – communicate, communicate, communicate.  Regular updates to the government are probably part of your contract anyway, but regardless, should be part of your firm’s best practices.  If a differing site condition is encountered, providing notice to the government pivots from a best practice to an absolute necessity.

 

Bid protests at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have spawned a distinct area of the law.  With multiple evaluation schemes to consider, there are an ever-growing number of strategies for disappointed offerors to challenge alleged agency procurement errors.

Just like there are best practices for bid protests, there are also strategies to avoid at all costs.  Chief among the arguments a protester should steer clear of is “mere disagreement” with the agency.

In a nut shell, “mere disagreements” arise where the protester challenges the agency’s decision based only on the notion that it deserved a better score, more strengths, better adjectival rating (and so on).  These arguments do not identify mistakes by the agency – they just wish the agency reached a different result during the evaluation.

GAO is not shy about denying “mere disagreement” protests out of hand.  For example, in a recent bid protest decision concerning an Army IT support services contract, GAO found that the protester’s arguments concerning the number of strengths/weaknesses and adjectival ratings assigned by GAO did not offer any grounds to sustain the protest.

The underlying rationale for the decision is GAO’s unwillingness to substitute its own judgment for that of the agency.  In other words, GAO finds that the agency is in the best position to assess its own needs and evaluate proposals.

GAO is also unwilling to split hairs when it comes to evaluation ratings.  For example, in this case, the protester unsuccessfully argued that the agency’s determination that a portion of its technical proposal included only strengths and no weaknesses should have automatically resulted in the assignment of a “significant strength.”  GAO disagreed, finding that the RFP defined a significant strength as an aspect of a proposal that would be “appreciably advantageous to the government during contract performance.” While the protester’s proposal may have exceeded certain requirements, GAO would not step in to overrule the agency’s determination that the proposal did not significantly exceed those requirements.

So, if “mere disagreement” is out, does that mean it is impossible to challenge an agency’s evaluation of your proposal?  Not at all.

The key is to focus on the essential element of all bid protests – a procurement error by the agency resulting in competitive prejudice (i.e., a diminished opportunity for contract award).  Rather than focus on ratings or strengths, the protest should address specific errors made during the evaluation process.  Did the agency misinterpret part of your proposal?  Or overlook something altogether?  Did the agency offer the awardee an advantage that your firm did not receive?

While these kinds of errors may be difficult to pinpoint at first, a skilled debriefing strategy can help draw them out.

The bottom line is that bid protests require a significant investment of time and resources.  If your firm’s only arguments amount to mere disagreement with the agency, those resources are likely better spent elsewhere.

Here we go again.  Back in March, I discussed the impact of the brief government shutdowns in January and February and risks associated with what could have been (had the stand-off gone on much longer).

Today, news from the White House and Capitol Hill raises concerns over another possible shutdown in September (when the government will run out of money without action by Congress and the President).

In light of this uncertainty, I thought it made sense to again share practical steps that contractors can take to get prepared.  That includes creating a plan for how to address existing contractual obligations without assuming unnecessary risks in the event that the government does, in fact, shut down (again).  It is far better to think about and address these issues in advance, rather than face the real time pressure of a last minute budget deal (or failed deal).

Let’s start with the bad news:  Your government contract (like almost every other procurement contract) will very likely be impacted by a shutdown.  The Anti-Deficiency Act prohibits Federal agencies from exceeding appropriation limits unless the contract falls into a narrow exception.  For contractors, that means a Stop Work Order.  Remember that the risk of continuing performance in the event that funding is not available may fall on your company.

Now, some good news:  By thinking ahead and planning in advance, you can mitigate risks and place your business in better position to weather the storm.  Here are a few practical pointers aimed at doing just that:

  • Review Your Contract.  Understanding how the government funds your contract will shed light on how it likely will be treated by the agency in the event of a shutdown.  According to the Office of Management and Budget, most “routine ongoing activities” will not be authorized to continue during a lapse in appropriation.
  • Communicate with the Contracting Officer.  Just like your business, the agency is also likely working on a plan on how to administer on-going contracts during a shutdown.  A mutual understating with the CO will go a long way towards avoiding disputes when the work inevitably ramps back up.
  • Develop Contingency Plans.  Work internally to create a contract specific contingency plan to mitigate risk in the event of a funding issue.  These will vary greatly depending upon the specifics of each procurement, so bringing in outside consulting and expertise to set up an individualized plan may reap benefits, particularly for more complex work.

Of note:  these tips – and the last one in particular – are not limited to government shutdown concerns alone.  Any government contract can experience unanticipated delays or even a long-term suspension of work.  Thinking ahead and creating a plan is the best way for contractors to avoid assuming unnecessary performance risks.

I recently had the opportunity to present an online CLE for LawLine on Risk Management in Government Contracting. This is my second time presenting a course for LawLine (I previously taught a course on Small Business Compliance).

Risk Management is a broad topic that can mean different things to different people. In this course, I decided to focus on practical steps that contractors can take to develop a corporate Culture of Compliance. There is little value in limiting compliance training to only the upper leadership – employees at all levels must become ethics and compliance watchdogs.

I recommend developing a compliance program in four steps (that not coincidentally track the requirements of FAR 52.203-13):

  • Implement a Contractor Code of Business Ethics and Conduct
  • Establish a Regular and Robust Training Program for All Employees
  • Institute an Internal Control System
  • Understand the Difference between Reportable and Non-Reportable Evidence

To be effective, none of these steps are “one and done.”  It will not do much good to draft a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct, only to put it in a drawer to collect dust.  Your Code should be a living document that your employees read, understand, and utilize often.

In addition to these broad strokes, the course also delves into a few hot button issues relevant to today’s enforcement environment.  Most prominently, I discussed the requirements of FAR 52.204-21 and Cybersecurity best practices.  It may not have fully hit yet – but I think firms that lag behind in this area will soon find themselves on the wrong side of government enforcement actions.

If you have any questions about this Risk Management presentation, or have other questions you’d like to discuss, I’m happy to connect with you off-line.  I’m available by phone (202-696-1460) and email (nsolosky@foxrothschild.com).

Two pieces of advice I often provide to government contractors are:

1.When responding to a solicitation, give the government precisely what it asks for – right down to the letter.  This includes providing the information in the correct section of your proposal.  The agency will not play hide-and-seek; and

2.  If you think there is something askew with a procurement or award decision – act fast.  There are lots of different deadlines enforced by GAO, but they all come and go very quickly.  A contractor typically must act within 10 days of when it knows (or should have known) of a protestable issue.  An even shorter timeline (5 days) applies in order to obtain an often essential stay of contract award and/or performance.

These concepts converge when it comes to bid protests related to defective solicitation terms.  GAO Bid Protest Rule 21.2(a)(1) states that a protest alleging improprieties or errors on a solicitation that are apparent on the face of the solicitation must be filed prior to bid opening or the closing date for the receipt of initial proposals.

In other words, a contractor cannot adopt a wait-and-see approach.  The protest must be filed before the contractor submits its bid or proposal.

In a recent GAO decision, a contractor gambled on waiting and ultimately lost the protest and a chance at the contract award.  The procurement at issue involved an Army contract for LED lighting.  The protester believed that its proposal was lower-priced that the awardee’s proposal and exceeded the solicitation requirements.

The Army rejected the protester’s proposal as non-responsive.  The solicitation included three categories of lights.  CLINS 1 and 2 required “type two” LED lights while CLIN 3 required “type three.”  All lights were also required to have a minimum glare rating of “two.”  According to the agency, the protester’s proposal included “type three” lights for all CLINS and a glare rating of “three.”

The protester did not dispute that its proposal differed from the solicitation requirements, but argued that the requirements were unclear and unreasonably restrictive.  With ever getting to the merits of these arguments, GAO denied the protest as an untimely challenge to the solicitation:   “To the extent that the protester now argues that it was unreasonable for the agency to have a minimum requirement for the type of light to be procured, or that the [solicitation’s] technical specifications were unclear, these arguments allege improprieties in the solicitation that, in order to be timely, were required to be raised prior to the closing time for receipt of quotations.  Accordingly, these allegations are untimely and will not be considered.”

At the end of the day, it did not matter whether (or not) the LED lights offered by the proposal were “better.”  The contractor did not follow the solicitation to the letter and lost as a result.

The lesson here for contractors is an easy one.  Address any solicitation uncertainties early and to your complete satisfaction.  Most issues can be addressed through Q&A or other pre-bid closing communications.  If problems are resolved, proceed and comply with the solicitation as-written.  If a defect remains even after your best efforts, the only solution is a bid protest filed before the closing date for proposals.

Here we go again.  Back in March, I discussed the impact of the brief government shutdown and risks associated with what could have been (had the stand-off gone on much longer).

Today, news from the White House and Capitol Hill raised concerns over another possible shutdown in September (when the government will run out of money without action by Congress and the President).

In light of this uncertainty, I thought it made sense to again share practical steps that contractors can take to get prepared.  That includes creating a plan for how to address existing contractual obligations without assuming unnecessary risks in the event that the government does, in fact, shut down (again).  It is far better to think about and address these issues in advance, rather than face the real time pressure of a last minute budget deal (or failed deal).

Let’s start with the bad news:  your government contract (like almost every other procurement contract) will very likely be impacted by a shutdown.  The Anti-Deficiency Act prohibits Federal agencies from exceeding appropriation limits unless the contract falls into a narrow exception.  For contractors, that means a Stop Work Order.  Remember that the risk of continuing performance in the event that funding is not available may fall on your company.

Now, some good news.  By thinking ahead and planning in advance, you can mitigate that risk and place your business in better position to weather the storm.  Here are a few practical pointers aimed at doing just that:

  • Review Your Contract.  Understanding how the government funds your contract will shed light on how it likely will be treated by the agency in the event of a shutdown.  According to the Office of Management and Budget, most “routine ongoing activities” will not be authorized to continue during a lapse in appropriation.
  • Communicate with the Contracting Officer.  Just like your business, the agency is also likely working on a plan on how to administer on-going contracts during a shutdown.  A mutual understating with the CO will go a long way towards avoiding disputes when the work inevitably ramps back up.
  • Develop Contingency Plans.  Work internally to create a contract specific contingency plan to mitigate risk in the event of a funding issue.  These will vary greatly depending upon the specifics of each procurement, so bringing in outside consulting and expertise to set up an individualized plan may reap benefits, particularly for more complex work.

Of note:  these tips – and the last one in particular – are not limited to government shutdown concerns alone.  Any government contract can experience unanticipated delays or even a long-term suspension of work.  Thinking ahead and creating a plan is the best way for contractors to avoid assuming unnecessary performance risks.

It seems that when we discuss GAO bid protests, we most often refer to the post-award variety.  Your company lost a contract award due to a procurement error by the agency (like the failure to adhere to the RFP requirements or properly evaluate proposals) – and the fight is on to win it back.

However, Federal contractors have another effective tool at their disposal – the pre-award protest.

A pre-award protest is based on alleged improprieties in the RFP that are apparent prior to the time set for receipt of initial proposals (or, in the case of an IFB, bid opening).  If a firm detects a solicitation defect while preparing its proposal, a protest concerning that defect must be filed before the deadline set by the agency for the submission of proposals.

Pre-award protests are important for a number of reasons.  First, they are waived if not timely raised.  That is, if your firm loses out on a contract, you cannot turn back the clock to challenge an unclear RFP term.  That ship has sailed.  Second, pre-award protests can an essential part of your firm’s proposal preparation process.  By clarifying the RFP upfront, you can set your firm up to be in the best position to win the award later down the line.

A recent GAO decision presents a great example of the effective use of a pre-award protest.  The protest concerns an RFP issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for large air tanker services for wild land firefighting.

After reviewing the solicitation, one potential offeror filed a pre-award protest arguing that the agency’s restriction on retardant tank sizes (no larger than 5,000 gallons) was unduly restrictive.   The protester argued that the restriction unnecessarily excludes larger tanker fleets and is not grounded in a reasonable basis (i.e., not related to the agency’s actual needs).

In responding to the protest, the agency argued that larger tankers are not suitable for a number of technical reasons related to the logistics of coordinating and operating firefighting missions.  The contractor disagreed – and proceeded to poke holes in the agency’s logic with facts and statistics related to (among other things) airfield weight limits, dimensions, and locations.

GAO sustained the protest and directed the agency to go back to the drawing board to reassess its actual needs.  GAO’s decision is less about firefighting management and more an indictment of the agency’s lack of logical planning related to logistics of the tanker size limitation.

By filing the protest, the potential offeror (whose fleet of tankers all exceed the size restriction) not only clarified the RFP, but also opened itself up to a potentially new contracting opportunity.  Federal contractors should be mindful of the potential upside of pre-award protests – even with respect to procurements where your firm starts on the outside looking in.

 

For federal contractors, it is not an exaggeration to say that performance evaluations are the lifeblood of the business.  A less-than-satisfactory evaluation in the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS) affects far more than just the agency’s assessment of performance on a particular project.  A negative evaluation follows a contractor around – impacting the ability to obtain future contracts due to the specter negative past performance ratings.

The good news for contractors is that the ability to challenge and – if successful – reverse negative CPARS evaluations is a quickly developing area of government contracting law.

The first step in any successful CPARS challenge involves meaningful participation in the evaluation process.  The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 42.15 entitles contractors to submit comments and receive an agency review of a disputed performance evaluation.  Specifically, contractors are entitled to submit comments, rebuttal statements, and/or other information in response to the agency’s evaluation.  The agency must then review those comments at a level above the contracting officer and update the evaluation, if necessary.

If the review and comment process is unsuccessful in resolving the issues, both the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and Boards of Contract Appeals recognize that contractors may bring a lawsuit to address performance evaluation disputes.  Generally speaking, in order to advance a performance evaluation dispute to the next level, the contractor must be prepared to prove that the agency’s evaluation is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.

Although litigation over a performance evaluation dispute is a relatively new development – the law is now clear that a condition precedent to litigating the issue before a Court or Board is a certified claim.  That is – just like a claim for damages based on (for example) delay or a differing site condition – the contractor must file a written claim in accordance with the Contract Disputes Act (CDA) and receive a denial or “deemed denial” of that claim in order to move forward.

In a recent decision, the Court of Federal Claims reinforced the notion that there is no substitute for a CDA claim.  The case originated with a complaint filed by a contractor concerning an allegedly unreasonable negative performance evaluation issued by the United States Transportation Command.  The contractor sought a declaratory judgment vacating the evaluation.

Before the contractor could even begin to prove its case, the government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the contractor did not submit a CDA claim to the contracting officer.  Without a claim (the government argued), the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case.  In response, the contractor asserted that it engaged in a series of communications with the agency regarding the CPARS evaluation, but the agency would not change its allegedly improper position.

On review, the Court sided with the government and dismissed the contractor’s complaint.  In this instance – far from proving a legitimate dispute that could substitute for a CDA claim – the Court relied on the contractor’s communications with the government as evidence its the lack of jurisdiction.  The Court held that the on-going nature of the parties’ negotiations showed that the contracting officer had no notice that the contractor sought a “final decision” of any kind.

The takeaway for contractors is very simple – engage in the process and follow the required steps when disputing a CPARS evaluation.  The contractor must participate in the review and comment procedure articulated in FAR 42.15 – but if that fails, the next logical step is to proceed with a CDA claim (or, perhaps as an intermediate step, a request for equitable adjustment).  Before a performance evaluation dispute can escalate to litigation, the contractor must be armed with a denial or deemed denial of that claim.

 

In a recent post, I discussed new legislation that could signal an uptick in Best Value procurements for complex service-based contracts.  In the view of many (including me), more Best Value RFPs is a win/win for both contractors and the government.

As a quick refresher, Best Value procurements utilize a Best Value Tradeoff Analysis, which gives the agency the ability to weigh proposal costs and benefits and award the contract to the offeror that will provide the “best value” to government – even if that comes at a higher price than another acceptable offer.  By contrast, Lowest-Price Technically-Acceptable (LPTA) awards can be challenging on complex service-based contracts, where skilled performance is often not suited to a lean or even shoestring budget.

Contractors bidding on Best Value procurements need to think strategically and be mindful of both price and technical excellence.  Having the lower price or exceeding the RFP requirements – independently or even in tandem – may not be enough.  A recent GAO decision highlights how mastering the interplay of these two factor is the key to sustained Best Value success.

The protest concerns the Department of the Interior’s decision to award an FSS task order to a higher-priced offeror on a Best Value basis.  GAO denied the protest, finding that the agency reasonably documented the relative strengths of the proposals and weighed them against the quoted prices.

Digging deeper into the protest, the protester argued that the agency did not reasonably take into account the qualifications and experience of its proposed personnel – noting that its proposal exceeded the RFP requirements in a variety of ways.  In response, the agency noted that it did, in fact, give the protester credit for its solid experience, including assigning a “high confidence” rating to its past performance proposal.

However, for a Best Value award – meeting or (in this case) even vastly exceeding the RFP requirements in one area is often not enough.  The agency performed a detailed review of the offerors’ strengths and compared them in the context of their respective prices.  Based on this proper tradeoff analysis (according to GAO), the agency found the higher priced offer provided better value to the government and made the award.

GAO’s decision offers an important lesson to government contractors competing Best Value procurements – don’t get complacent!  Unlike LPTA procurements (where the RFP sets the bar), RFP requirements should not be viewed as anything other than the baseline.  Contractors should parse those requirements for areas where it can add value and then highlight all of those betterments in its proposal.

For government contractors frustrated by Federal agencies’ use of Lowest-Price Technically-Acceptable solicitations on complex services contracts – help may be on the way.

As I’ve discussed before, LPTA procurements can have a chilling effect on contractors that are able to provide increased technical benefits to the government – but at an increased price.  LPTA solicitations encourage contractors to get as lean as possible – focusing on price and only minimum technical competency.

A Bill currently before the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to limit the use of LPTA and leave it to the agency to weigh the “benefits of cost and technical tradeoffs in the source selection process.”  In other words, a Best Value Tradeoff approach.

If passed into law, the Bill would appear to been a boon for highly-skilled contractors capable of providing Federal agencies with great value at an increased (but still reasonable) price.  The Bill specifically earmarks certain industries where Best Value solicitations would take precedence over LPTA contracting:

  • Information technology services, cybersecurity services, systems engineering and technical assistance services, advanced electronic testing, audit or audit readiness services, or other knowledge-based professional services;
  • Personal protective equipment; and
  • Knowledge-based training or logistics services in contingency operations or other operations outside the United States, including in Afghanistan or Iraq.

I will continue to track the progress of this Bill as makes it way towards becoming law.  It should certainly be on the radar for Department of Defense contractors providing any of the broad range of services outlined above.