Computer World Services

B-417634: Sep 6, 2019

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Computer World Services (CWS), of Falls Church, Virginia, protests the decision by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to eliminate CWS's quotation from consideration, pursuant to request for quotations (RFQ) No. 70S1BUR19R00000019, to provide information technology (IT) support services. CWS challenges the agency's assessment of multiple weaknesses in CWS's quotation.

We deny the protest.

DOCUMENT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE
The decision issued on the date below was subject to a GAO Protective Order. The entire decision has now been approved for public release.

Decision

Matter of:  Computer World Services

File:  B-417634

Date:  September 6, 2019

Lee Dougherty, Effectus, PLLC, for the protester.
John E. Cornell, Esq., Joshua A. Kranzberg, Esq., and Mark A. Allen, Esq., Department of Homeland Security, for the agency.
Glenn G. Wolcott, Esq., and Christina Sklarew, Esq., Office of the General Counsel, GAO, participated in the preparation of the decision.

DIGEST

Agency’s assessment of multiple technical weaknesses in protester’s quotation was reasonable and consistent with the solicitation’s stated evaluation factors.

DECISION

Computer World Services (CWS), of Falls Church, Virginia, protests the decision by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to eliminate CWS’s quotation from consideration, pursuant to request for quotations (RFQ) No. 70S1BUR19R00000019, to provide information technology (IT) support services.  CWS challenges the agency’s assessment of multiple weaknesses in CWS’s quotation.

We deny the protest.

BACKGROUND

On February 11, 2019, pursuant to Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) subpart 8.4, the agency issued RFQ No. 70FA2019Q00000003 to contractors holding federal supply schedule (FSS) contracts, IT schedule 70 with special item number 132-51. The solicitation sought quotations to support the USCIS office of Information Technology, Systems Delivery Division. 

The agency explains that, at USCIS today, numerous systems and services share information, and the conduit for exchanging information between the systems is the “enterprise services bus” (ESB).  Agency Report (AR), exh. 11, Declaration of Contracting Officer, July 1, 2019, at 1.  The ESB relies on proprietary software, referred to as “TIBCO” software, and operates out of a government-owned data center.[1]  Id.  Pursuant to this RFQ, the successful contractor will be required to replace the existing TIBCO-based ESB with “microservice architecture using open source software,[[2]] with the final service residing in the cloud (Amazon Web Services or AWS).”[3]  AR, MOL, at 2; see AR, exh. 1, RFQ, at 65.  In this context, the RFQ advised contractors that the agency required an “urgent transition to microservices,” establishing a target completion date of September 2020.  RFQ at 37, 57, 65.

The solicitation contemplated a 2-phase procurement, and provided that, in phase 1, each contractor must submit a written price quotation, along with a seven-minute video presentation that responded to five questions addressing the contractor’s technical strategy/approach.  RFQ at 32.  The questions were: 

  1. What services would the Offeror tackle first and why?
  2. Your approach to an urgent transition to the microservice-based architecture?
  3. How does the Offeror’s strategy ensure that a service in the legacy ESB environment will remain operational through its service transition to the new microservice based environment?
  4. During the life of this contract USCIS is likely to receive new Immigration mandates (e.g. changes to H1B).  Would your solution in response to the new mandate be built on the legacy system, built on the new microservice architecture, or a combination of both?
  5. Management and staffing approach to include:
    1. Proposed number of teams, team structure, and location of performance.
    2. HR process to recruit and retain qualified staff, to include scaling for surge/optional tasks.

Id. at 37-38.

The solicitation provided that, in phase 1, quotations would be evaluated on the basis of two factors:  technical strategy and price.  With regard to technical strategy, the RFQ provided that quotations would be evaluated on the basis of how well the video answered the five RFQ questions quoted above, taking into consideration:  “(1) feasibility of the approach and (2) approach to an urgent transition to microservices.”[4]  RFQ at 37. The solicitation further provided that “[t]he most highly rated offer[or]s, with prices determined to be reasonable in phase 1, will be invited to participate in phase 2,” adding that, in phase 1, “a trade-off process will not be applied.”[5]  Id. at 37.

On or before the March 11 closing date, twenty FSS schedule 70 contractors, including CWS, submitted quotations; these quotations were subsequently evaluated against the phase 1 evaluation factors. 

In evaluating CWS’s quotation, the agency identified multiple weaknesses[6] in CWS’s responses to the RFQ questions,[7] and assigned the quotation a technical rating of acceptable.[8]  In summarizing its evaluation of CWS’s technical strategy, the agency stated that CWS’s responses “were missing details needed to form a feasible approach,” and that CWS had “proposed approaches that would negatively impact an urgent transition away from TIBCO to microservices based architecture by 2020.”  AR, exh. 4, CWS Technical Evaluation, at 1.

On May 21, the contracting officer made his down-select decision, selecting the five most highly rated quotations to proceed to the phase 2 technical demonstration.[9]  Thereafter, the remaining contractors, including CWS, were notified of their elimination from further consideration.  This protest followed.

DISCUSSION

CWS protests the agency’s assessment of each evaluated weakness in CWS’s quotation, asserting that the agency’s assessments were “unreasonable” and/or based on “unstated evaluation criteria.”  Protest at 1, 10-19.  We have reviewed CWS’s quotation, along with the agency’s evaluation record, and find no basis to sustain the protest.  Below, we discuss representative examples of CWS’s assertions; the agency’s responses; and our conclusions.[10]

Question 1

As noted above, USCIS currently relies on numerous systems and services that share information, and the conduit for exchanging information between the systems is the TIBCO-based ESB.  The RFQ contemplates an “urgent transition” from the current system to a cloud-based system that employs microservices architecture.  RFQ at 35, 57, 65.  In this context, the first question to which contractors were required to respond was:  “What services would the Offeror tackle first and why?”  Id. at 37. 

In response, CWS discussed its “priorities of services,” referring to an “order of conversion,” and stated that “we propose to tackle PCQS [Person Centric Query Service] first”[11] because it viewed that system as the “most complex with [the] greatest number of connections/partners.”[12] Protest, exh. 4, Power Point for CWS Video, at 3-4; see CWS Comments, July 11, 2019, at 4.  In addition to proposing to “tackle PCQS first,” CWS identified a conversion order for the “remaining services.”  Id.

In evaluating CWS’s response to question 1, the agency criticized CWS’s intent to begin with PCQS, noting that “PCQS is just a query system and there is no data orchestration or data translation required like other services.”  AR, exh. 4, Tech. Eval., at 1.  The agency evaluators further noted that, “if they tackle PCQS first and don’t work on other services in parallel, they will not meet the Sep[tember] 2020 deadline for migrating off of TIBCO,” adding that CWS’s approach would “prolong our dependence on TIBCO due to a slower transition of a large service as compared with other services that could have quicker transitions away from TIBCO.”  Id; AR, exh. 5, Tech. Eval. – Slack Thread, at 1.  Finally, the agency concluded that CWS’s response to question 1 “displays a lack of understanding” and “will not adequately help meet the government’s goal of a speedy migration away from TIBCO.”  AR, exh. 4, CWS Tech. Eval., at 1.

CWS protests that the agency’s criticism is “misguided,” asserting that “[a]s the incumbent,” CWS “knows . . . that PCQS will take the longest to migrate.”  Protest at 14.  In this context, CWS asserts that, based on its “intimate knowledge” and “expert level of understanding” of the ESB services, its approach should have been viewed by the agency as demonstrating “business value, awareness of mission goals, and the ability to meet multiple customer and stakeholder priorities.”  Id.  Finally, CWS complains that the agency’s criticism that CWS failed to discuss working on other services “in parallel” reflected application of an unstated evaluation factor.  Id. 

The agency responds by pointing out that the solicitation explicitly advised contractors that responses to the technical questions would be evaluated on the basis of the agency’s assessments regarding the feasibility of each contractor’s approach and ability to meet the agency’s requirement for an urgent transition.  See RFQ at 37.  Accordingly, the agency maintains that it properly assessed a weakness in CWS’s quotation because, in the agency’s judgment, CWS’s approach of migrating PCQS first, without also working on other services in parallel, would “prolong [the agency’s] dependence” on the TIBCO system that CWS currently supports.  AR, exh. 5, Tech. Eval. – Slack Thread, at 1.  The agency maintains that its concerns in this regard are both reasonable and clearly related to the solicitation’s stated evaluation factors, and that CWS’s disagreement with the agency’s judgment does not provide a basis for protest. 

Where, as here, a procurement is conducted pursuant to FAR subpart 8.4, our Office will not reevaluate proposals, nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency; rather, we will review the record to ensure that the agency’s evaluation was reasonable and consistent with the terms of the solicitation and applicable procurement laws and regulations.  See, e.g., VariQ Corp., B-409114 et al., Jan. 27, 2014, 2014 CPD ¶ 58 at 8.  In this context, a protester’s disagreement with a procuring agency’s evaluation judgments, without more, does not establish that the evaluation was unreasonable.  Robbins-Gioia, LLC, B-402199 et al., Feb. 3, 2010, 2010 CPD ¶ 67 at 6.  Finally, while a solicitation must disclose the evaluation factors, it need not specifically identify each and every element an agency may consider during an evaluation where such elements are intrinsic to, or reasonably subsumed within, the stated factors.  FAR § 15.304(d); see, e.g., DM Petroleum Operations Co., B-409004, B‑409004.5, Jan. 15, 2014, 2014 CPD ¶ 52 at 8-9.

Here, the solicitation specifically advised contractors that the agency would evaluate each contractor’s response with regard to the “feasibility” of its approach and the ability to successfully perform an “urgent transition.”  RFQ at 37.  In assessing a weakness in CWS’s assertion that PCQS should be tackled first, the agency explained the basis for its criticism, noting, among other things, that there is “no data orchestration or data translation required like other services,” and further explaining that the PCQS user interface “is not comprised of the TIBCO technology,” from which the agency is intent on transitioning.  AR, exh. 4, CWS Tech. Eval., at 1.  Nothing in CWS’s protest meaningfully challenges the accuracy of the agency’s assessments in this regard; accordingly, CWS’s disagreement with the agency fails to establish that the agency’s judgment was unreasonable.  Further, we view the agency’s concerns as reasonably related to the solicitation’s stated evaluation factors, which advised contractors that their responses would be evaluated with regard to the feasibility of their approaches to completing the transition expeditiously.  On this record, CWS’s protest challenging the agency’s assessment of a weakness in CWS’s response to question 1 is denied.

Question 2

As noted above, the RFQ contemplates an “urgent transition” from the current system to a cloud-based system with microservices architecture.  RFQ at 37.  In this context, the second question required each contractor to discuss its “approach to an urgent transition to the microservice-based architecture.” 

CWS’s response to this question referred to the “Strangler Pattern” (which it describes as an approach that will “incrementally insulate, intercept, and replace specific service functions,” Protest, exh. 4, Power Point for Video Presentation, at 5-6), and a 3‑step process that consisted of the following:

Step 1:  Establish core foundational interfaces
Step 2:  Establish replacement microservices.
Step 3:  Transition full operational workload.

Id. at 7-9.

In assessing a weakness in CWS’s quotation with regard to its question 2 response, the agency evaluators stated that CWS “did not adequately discuss their proposed pipeline”;[13] noted that CWS’s reference to the “Strangler Pattern” was “standard” and “nothing out of the ordinary”; and concluded that CWS “discussed high level concepts with inadequate details.”  AR, exh. 4, CWS Tech. Eval., at 1; exh. 5, Tech. Eval., -- Slack Thread, at 3.  Specifically, with regard to CWS’s 3-step process, the agency criticized step 1 (establish core foundational interfaces), noting that a “more feasible approach would be to use the current interfaces as a façade and rebuild the business processes behind the interfaces.”  Id. at 1-2.  With regard to the rest of CWS’s 3-step process, the agency concluded that CWS’s approach was “vague” and failed to provide details regarding planning and/or execution.  Id. at 2. 

CWS protests that the agency’s assessment of a weakness was unreasonable and/or reflected an unstated evaluation factor, complaining that question 2 “did not include a request for a proposed pipeline.”  Protest at 15.  With regard to lack of detail, CWS complains that “the constraints and limitations levied by the Government’s seven minute video requirement” precluded providing “thorough details.”[14]  Id.  Finally, with regard to the agency’s criticism of its intent to “establish core foundational interfaces,” CWS complains that the agency “merely states its opinion of what may be more feasible without . . . practical knowledge.”  Id.

The agency responds that a development pipeline “is an integral part of the task of transitioning to microservices,” AR, MOL at 7, and points out that the solicitation specifically advised offerors that, in making the final source selection decision, the agency would test “[t]he degree to which the Offeror effectively implements a CI/CD [continuous integration/continuous delivery] pipeline.”  See RFQ at 38.  Accordingly, the agency maintains that it reasonably expected CWS’s quotation to discuss its proposed pipeline.  The agency further responds that its specific criticism of CWS’s intent to establish “core foundational interfaces” was based on the agency’s judgment regarding feasibility--which was expressly identified as an evaluation factor.  Finally, the agency responds that, to the extent CWS is now protesting the solicitation’s “constraints and limitations” on the length of the video, the protest is untimely.  In short, the agency maintains that its evaluation of CWS’s quotation with regard to question 2 was reasonable and consistent with the terms of the solicitation.

As noted above, a solicitation need not expressly identify evaluation elements that are intrinsic to, or subsumed within, the stated evaluation factors, DM Petroleum Operations Co., supra., and a protester’s disagreement with an agency’s evaluation judgments, without more, does not constitute a valid basis for protest.  Robbins-Gioia, LLC, B‑402199 et al., supra.

Based on our review of the record, we find no basis to question the agency’s assessments regarding CWS’s response to question 2.  As discussed above, the solicitation specifically requested that each contractor discuss its approach to meeting the agency’s requirement to expeditiously transition away from the TIBCO-based system, and provided that the agency would make judgments regarding the feasibility of each contractor’s approach in that regard.  Further, the solicitation expressly advised contractors that demonstration of their delivery pipelines would be required prior to award.  See RFQ at 38.  On this record, CWS was reasonably on notice that the agency would consider the extent to which its phase 1 quotation discussed its pipeline.  Further, CWS’s complaint that the agency’s criticism regarding the feasibility of CWS’s approach “merely states [the agency’s] opinion” does not constitute a valid basis for protest.  Specifically, CWS has failed to identify any meaningful basis for questioning the agency’s judgments--other than to express its general disagreement with those judgments based on CWS’s status as the incumbent contractor.  On this record, we reject CWS’s protest challenging the agency’s assessment of CWS’s response to question 2. 

Question 5

Finally, in response to question 5, each contractor was directed to discuss, among other things, its “process to recruit and retain qualified staff.”  RFQ at 38.  With regard to recruitment, CWS’s quotation referred to “web based tools,” and use of “3rd party resources,” stating that CWS has “4 full time recruiters.”  Protest exh. 4, Power Point of CWS Video,  at 14. 

In assessing a weakness with regard to CWS’s response to question 5, the agency found CWS’s description of its recruiting process “inadequate” in that it failed to address how CWS will “find, screen, and hire the multitude of highly technical positions listed [in its quotation].”  AR, exh. 4, Tech. Eval., at 2.

CWS protests that it “has been in business 25 years and uses industry best practices.”  Protest at 18.  CWS asserts that there was no solicitation criterion “requiring [contractors] to detail how they would effectively ‘find, screen and hire the multitude of technical positions listed.’”  Id. at 19.  Further, CWS asserts that it “currently possesses all the staff necessary” to perform the contract “without the need for additional recruiting.”[15]  Id.  In summary, CWS asserts that the agency’s evaluation with regard to recruiting “demonstrates a lack of understanding for the goals of the program.”  Id. at 12. 

In response, the agency states that despite CWS’s status as the incumbent contractor that is supporting the system to be replaced, its quotation failed to address how its existing resources “will simultaneously keep the legacy application in service while transitioning services to a microservice environment.”  AR, MOL at 11.  Further, CWS’s references to web based tools, 3rd party resources, and four recruiters fail to adequately address “the complexities of recruiting and retaining qualified staff.”  Id. 

As noted above, our Office will not reevaluate proposals, nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency; rather, we will review the record to ensure that the agency’s evaluation was reasonable and consistent with the terms of the solicitation and applicable procurement laws and regulations.  VariQ Corp., supra

Based on our review of the record, we reject CWS’s assertion that the agency’s assignment of a weakness for failing to adequately discuss the processes it will employ to find, screen, and hire personnel was unreasonable and inconsistent with the stated evaluation criteria.  CWS’s assertion in this regard is without merit.

The protest is denied.

Thomas H. Armstrong
General Counsel

 

[1] CWS is the incumbent contractor and is currently responsible for maintaining the TIBCO-based system. 

[2] CWS describes the migration as breaking the current software services “into smaller segments that can be implemented modularly.”  Protest at 11.

[3] The agency states that the objective of this procurement is to convert the current outdated system for responding to requests for immigration benefits to a “modern, digital system” that will be “online from start to finish.”  AR, Memorandum of Law (MOL), at 2. 

[4] With regard to price, the contractors were required to identify their proposed staffing and quote associated labor rates.

[5] The solicitation provided that, in phase 2, quotations would be further evaluated based on various technical tests/demonstrations, and that the final source selection decision would be based on a best-value tradeoff.  RFQ at 38.

[6] The RFQ defined a weakness as “a flaw in a proposal that increases the chance of unsuccessful performance.”  Id. at 39. 

[7] The agency also assessed one strength in CWS’s quotation.

[8] Under the technical strategy evaluation factor, quotations were assigned ratings of:  outstanding, good, acceptable, or unacceptable.  RFQ at 39.

[9] Each of the quotations selected to move forward to phase 2 received a technical evaluation rating of at least good.

[10] In addition to the specific weaknesses discussed below, the agency criticized other aspects of CWS’s approach, including aspects that the agency viewed as:  (1) “very expensive,” AR, exh. 4, Tech. Eval., at 2, (to which CWS protests that the solicitation “did not specify a budget, cost targets, or infrastructure cost optimization factor as part of evaluation or approach,” Protest at 17); and (2) a “complete waste of time,” AR, exh. 4, Tech. Eval. at 2 (to which CWS asserts that the agency’s assessment “is irrelevant to the Government’s stated question,” Protest at 18).  In its submissions to our Office, CWS also asserts that the agency’s evaluation reflected bias and/or was inadequately documented.  We have reviewed all of CWS’s various protest allegations and find no basis to sustain its protest.

[11] The PCQS is one of the services used in the ESB, and the solicitation states that this service “provides a consolidated view of [the] legacy system’s data,” adding that it “consists of a Web Service Interface, a Web User Interface, and a TIBCO Business Works Agent for each system to which it connects.”  RFQ at 99. 

[12] CWS states that its current contract “has already been modified to move . . . PCQS to AWS” and that its quotation “propos[ed] to continue to complete [this] migration.”  Protest at 16.  CWS acknowledges that there have been “some technical challenges” in implementing this migration.  Id. at 17. 

[13] The agency notes that a “delivery pipeline” refers to how a product “makes its way through to development, testing, and deployment, to production.”  AR, MOL, at 7 n.3. 

[14] While asserting that the time limitation precluded submission of details, CWS asserts that its quotation did, in fact, provide details through its reference to the “Strangler Pattern.”

[15] However, CWS states that its current staff will need to “undergo new training to support the microservices.”  Protest at 19. 

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