B-239126.4, Sep 11, 1990, 90-2 CPD 195

B-239126.4: Sep 11, 1990

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PROCUREMENT - Competitive Negotiation - Offers - Competitive ranges - Exclusion - Administrative discretion DIGEST: Protester was properly excluded from the competitive range where the agency reasonably concluded that the offeror had no reasonable chance of award because of major deficiencies in its technical proposal. IMS contends that the evaluation of its proposal was flawed because it was not performed in accordance with the evaluation criteria in the RFP. The purpose of the NARIC is to serve as a centralized depository and dissemination vehicle to ensure that information about resources in rehabilitation and related fields flows freely to and from the rehabilitation and disability communities.

B-239126.4, Sep 11, 1990, 90-2 CPD 195

PROCUREMENT - Competitive Negotiation - Offers - Competitive ranges - Exclusion - Administrative discretion DIGEST: Protester was properly excluded from the competitive range where the agency reasonably concluded that the offeror had no reasonable chance of award because of major deficiencies in its technical proposal, its poor rating for relevant experience, and because of its otherwise low technical score.

Attorneys

Integrated Microcomputer Systems, Inc.:

Integrated Microcomputer Systems, Inc. (IMS) protests the exclusion of its proposal from the competitive range under request for proposals (RFP) No. 90-005 issued by the Department of Education for the operation of the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). IMS contends that the evaluation of its proposal was flawed because it was not performed in accordance with the evaluation criteria in the RFP.

We deny the protest.

The RFP sought proposals for a contemplated 36-month cost-plus-fixed fee contract to operate the NARIC. The purpose of the NARIC is to serve as a centralized depository and dissemination vehicle to ensure that information about resources in rehabilitation and related fields flows freely to and from the rehabilitation and disability communities. Information is stored in and retrieved from specialized computer databases.

Proposals were evaluated in four areas: "Technical Approach" (50 points); "Organizational Capabilities and Experience" (20 points); "Personnel" (20 points); and "Management Plan, Facility, and Resources" (10 points), for a total of 100 points. The primary evaluation factor, "Technical Approach", was divided into two sub-factors: "Demonstration of an understanding of problems to be addressed by the NARIC" (10 points); and "Procedural Plan", describing how the offeror planned to accomplish the tasks set forth in the RFP, including scheduling of information, methodological issues involved in operating the NARIC and how they would be addressed (40 points). Technical quality was more important than cost and award was to be made to the technically superior offeror whose proposal was most advantageous to the government, price and other factors considered.

Seven offerors, including IMS, submitted proposals by the closing date of November 17, 1989. After individual evaluation and scoring of each proposal, the evaluation panel members met to discuss the technical merits of each proposal. Based on the results of these evaluations, the contracting officer determined that two of the offerors, with average scores of 95.4 and 94.4, would be included in the competitive range. The remaining five offerors, including IMS with a score of 68.6, were excluded as technically unacceptable.

Although IMS' proposed cost-plus-fixed-fee was the third lowest, its technical proposal was ranked sixth of the seven. It was eliminated from the competitive range because of major weaknesses identified in its technical proposal which would require major revisions in substantive areas. After discussions were conducted with the two offerors in the competitive range, best and final offers (BAFO) were obtained, and the contract to operate the NARIC was awarded to Macro Systems, Inc. IMS' protest followed.

IMS raises a number of arguments in its protest generally contending that it was improperly eliminated from the competitive range. It believes its proposal could have been made technically acceptable had the evaluation panel conducted discussions with it to resolve any inconsistencies in its proposal.

In a negotiated procurement, the competitive range consists of all proposals that have a reasonable chance of being selected for award, including deficient proposals that are reasonably susceptible of being made acceptable through discussions. Engineers Int'l, Inc., B-224177, Dec. 22, 1986, 86-2 CPD Para. 699. In reviewing a competitive range determination, we do not reevaluate technical proposals; instead, we examine the agency's evaluation to ensure that it was reasonable and in accord with the evaluation criteria. Rainbow Technology, Inc., B-232589, Jan. 24, 1989, 89-1 CPD Para. 66.

The RFP required technical proposals to include a detailed work plan indicating how each aspect of the statement of work would be accomplished and to reflect a clear understanding of the nature of work being undertaken, including an awareness of difficulties and a plan to surmount them. Proposals also were to include detailed information on the project's organization, staff, and management, including a list of names, proposed duties, and resumes of professional staff. Offerors were cautioned against submitting proposals which merely offered to conduct a program in accordance with the contractual requirements.

Despite various identified strengths-- business skills, willingness to learn about the NARIC, and a commitment to hire persons with disabilities- - the agency found that overall IMS' proposal did not evidence an understanding of the NARIC's mission, and consequently failed to anticipate or demonstrate what problems were likely. The agency concluded that IMS' proposal generally made only basic assurances that the firm knew how to perform the tasks identified in the RFP; the proposal "parroted" the tasks listed in the RFP with little or no "how-to" in its approach.

In the most important evaluation criterion, technical approach, the evaluators identified more than 20 weaknesses which resulted in an average score of 31.8 out of 50. As an example, the agency describes IMS' plan for updating the system's thesaurus (Task 4 of 14) as simply a statement of conventional library and information retrieval practices. The panel found IMS had failed to recognize that an effective thesaurus had yet to be achieved due to the diversity of the rehabilitation field. Similarly, with regard to development of other data sources (Task 7), IMS offered a conventional library management practice, but failed to demonstrate knowledge of what other data sources are available and where they exist.

With regard to IMS' management plan, which the RFP required to be detailed and to include specific quality and cost controls, the evaluators found that IMS merely promised to undertake the preparation of a program management plan. Similarly, IMS' quality control plan was evaluated as too brief, particularly lacking detail about who would handle what kind of problems as well as when they would be addressed. The evaluators also found that IMS provided no cost control plan. As a result of these and other deficiencies, IMS received an average score of 6.4 out of 10. IMS' lack of experience in rehabilitation and related areas was found to outweigh its well qualified program director and excellent experience in library and information retrieval fields, and resulted in an average score of 14.8 out of 20 points for organizational capabilities and experience.

In evaluating IMS' proposal under the personnel criterion, some panel members were confused concerning IMS' selection of its staff. They noted that IMS' proposal stated that all contract work would be accomplished either by current employees of IMS or with new personnel, and that initial staffing actions would include consideration of incumbent contractor staff members. However, the evaluators found that the proposal later stated that all of IMS' staff had been selected except for the receptionist. Although the proposed staff appeared to have "good to excellent" credentials, the panel was confused as to what positions were actually filled, the identities of the staff, and which might be replaced by new recruits or from the incumbent's staff. In view of this confusion and a lack of discussion of staff qualifications outside of resumes, IMS received an average score of 15.8 out of 20 points.

IMS generally disagrees with the agency's review, and alleges that the evaluators' comments reflect minor and trivial concerns; did not justify the degree of down-grading; evidenced a failure to thoroughly review its proposal; and demonstrated that its proposal was evaluated against the incumbent Macro's proposal and other evaluation criteria not disclosed in the RFP.

We find the record fully supports IMS' overall score. For example, one evaluator noted that IMS' facility floor plan failed to depict restrooms and that detailed information on accessibility of the facility to disabled persons was lacking. IMS believes that is an unfair assessment since it promised to configure the space for "maximum accessibility" and since its floor plan did not include the common area of the building where restrooms were located. Since an offeror is responsible for providing sufficient detail in its proposal, and blanket assurances of compliance are insufficient to meet this requirement, we believe this aspect of IMS' proposal was reasonably identified as a weakness. McManus Sec. Sys., 67 Comp.Gen. 534 (1988), 88-2 CPD Para. 68. Another example is the panel's confusion over the discussion in the protester's proposal about its selection of staff, which IMS claims to be a "trivial" interpretation. find that the proposal statements concerning staff selection were reasonably found to be confusing.

There is no evidence that the evaluators failed to thoroughly review IMS' proposal or that they evaluated it against the incumbent or some undisclosed criteria. The record reflects that the individual evaluators identified strengths and weaknesses of IMS' and other offerors' proposals in accordance with the RFP's evaluation criteria. They then met to discuss the merits of each proposal, with the results being compiled into a summary report. Although some evaluators did refer to ongoing practices, these comments do not appear to be a comparison with the incumbent's proposal, as much as a simple recognition of the status quo with regard to the predecessor contract, and thus a fair gauge of the protester's understanding of the agency's requirements.

In some instances identified weaknesses do not match specific details in the RFP's description of the evaluation criteria. In those cases we believe that the evaluators' comments are fairly embraced by the stated criteria and, in any event, had a very limited effect on IMS' overall evaluation. For example, two of the five evaluators noted that IMS had not provided the names of any of the advisory council members (Task 12). As observed by IMS, the RFP did not require the provision of the names until 3 months after contract award. According to the RFP, the advisory council was required to be comprised of a minimum of eight persons, at least half of whom must be disabled, and all representing consumer groups, various rehabilitation agencies and concerns, and National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research grantees. IMS' proposal did little more than promise to perform Task 12 and indicated that it would not develop specific selection criteria for the council members until after contract award. In view of the specific requirements concerning the composition of the council and IMS' lack of a more specific response, we believe the evaluators' perception of a weakness was reasonable. In any event, since this was but one weakness among several identified, we find the evaluators' observations had no appreciable effect on IMS' overall evaluation.

We also find no evidence to support IMS' contention that the point spread between its high evaluation (98 points) and its low evaluation (43 points) evidences the panel's failure to use well-defined evaluation criteria. Disparity in scores alone is not a sufficient basis for finding an improper application of the evaluation criteria by the evaluators. Monarch Enters., Inc., B-233303 et al., Mar. 2, 1989, 89-1 CPD Para. 222. It is not unusual for different evaluators to have disparate, subjective judgments, which are subject to reasonable differences of opinion. See Mounts Eng'g, 65 Comp.Gen. 476 (1986), 86-1 CPD Para. 358. Here, the fact that some evaluators were willing to award higher scores to IMS' proposal does not make the lower scores suspect.

Based upon our review of IMS' proposal, the agency's evaluation, and the requirements of the RFP, we find the agency reasonably determined that IMS' proposal was technically unacceptable and not susceptible to being made acceptable without major, substantive revisions. We agree with the agency that IMS' proposal generally was lacking in detail in various areas and tended to "parrot" the RFP's requirements. Notwithstanding the difference between IMS' high and low individual evaluation scores, all five evaluators found weaknesses in the proposal's most important evaluation area, technical approach. The contracting officer, as source selection official, has broad discretion in determining the manner and extent to which he will make use of evaluation results. TRW Inc., 68 Comp.Gen. 511 (1989), 89-2 CPD Para. 560. In our view, the contracting officer reasonably determined that IMS' proposal was significantly inferior to those included in the competitive range, had no reasonable chance of award and, thus, was properly excluded from the competitive range. Senior Communications Servs., B-233173, Jan. 13, 1989, 89-1 CPD Para. 37; Engineers Int'l, Inc., B-224177, supra.

Although discussions would have provided IMS an opportunity to explain the proposal's inconsistencies and deficiencies, a contracting agency has no obligation to conduct discussions with an offeror whose technical proposal is so deficient that it has no reasonable chance for award. Senior Communications Servs., B-233173, supra; Forecasting Int'l Ltd., B-220622.3, Apr. 1, 1986, 86-1 CPD Para. 306. IMS also contends that Macro, as the incumbent, had an unfair advantage and would have been awarded the contract irrespective of the panel's review. IMS has provided no substantive evidence that the contracting agency provided Macro any preferential treatment. While Macro may have had an apparent advantage due to its experience on the predecessor contract, this does not mean that its favorable evaluation is suspect. Where, as here, a competitive advantage is not due to preference or unfair action by the government, the government is not required to equalize the offerors' competitive positions. Reach All, Inc., B-229772, Mar. 15, 1988, 88-1 CPD Para. 267. Further, IMS has provided no evidence that Macro would have been awarded the contract regardless of the evaluation. Such speculative assertions alone are insufficient to sustain a protest. Independent Metal Strap Co., Inc., B-231756, Sept. 21, 1988, 88-2 CPD Para. 275.

Accordingly, the protest is denied.