Chapter 4. CONTRACTOR SELECTION PROCESS
The work to be done under the contract will have been described in the Request for Proposal (RFP) as well as the material and presentation to be submitted by the offeror as a basis for evaluating the response. The criteria and scoring to be used in this evaluation are also included in the RFP, thus giving each offeror the same knowledge about evaluation of the technical proposal. It is in this sense that contractor selection starts when the decision is first made to issue a competitive RFP. By that time, there should have been consideration of the possibility of doing the work in-house or through another Federal agency, of contracting with an 8(a) firm, or of limiting competition to small business firms under the set aside program.
The decision by the contracting officer to issue an open competitive RFP instead of taking one of these other options involves decisions and justifications within the agency as to the conduct of the work or some basic characteristics that potential contractors must have. These may relate to performance or capacity requirements or experience or reputation requirements of potential contractors. These characteristics should be part of the specifications included in the RFP. Since the agency has made the decision to go competitive based on specific requirements of the proposed contract as these relate to capacities of potential offerors, it is incumbent upon the writers of the RFP to make this information available to potential offeror organizations. It will be useful to them in making their decisions as to whether to respond to the RFP. The mechanism for doing this is the RFP itself. An adjunct to this that is sometimes used is a Bidders' Conference as discussed in Chapter 3.
The thinking that resulted in a competitive RFP should provide the framework of offeror capacities and expected activities performance that will be used to evaluate responses. The remainder of this chapter is based on the premise that the RFP discussed what was being looked for in the contractor selection process.
Components of the Selection Process
The response to an RFP is submitted in two separate parts, the Technical Proposal and the Business and Cost Proposal. These are evaluated separately. Evaluation of the Business and Cost Proposal is the responsibility of the contracting officer and is done in terms of the appropriateness and documentation of costs relative to resources to be devoted to the effort.
The technical proposal is evaluated in terms of the material on project conduct and management, the staff and other resources to be devoted to the project, and the qualifications of the staff. If the RFP was specific in the description of the work to be done, the capacity and experience of the organization and staff will probably be weighted more heavily in the evaluation criteria. If the RFP was more general in the description of the work to be done, the approach to conducting the project proposed by the offeror will probably be weighted more heavily. In any case, the RFP should have specified what the offeror was to submit as a basis for technical evaluation and the criteria to be used.
The contracting officer has the responsibility to ensure that the technical evaluation is conducted in a way that satisfies the Federal Procurement Regulations and agency requirements. The program office bears responsibility for the conduct of this review. The guidelines in the regulations governing technical review require establishing a selection process that will insure fair and impartial treatment of all offerors, the selection of sources whose performance is expected to meet the contract requirements at a reasonable cost or price, and avoidance of arbitrary or capricious behavior, inequitable treatment, or undue influence. It is essential that persons involved in the evaluation process have no conflict of interest with this function and that no information concerning the evaluations be released to another individual except one who is participating in the process.
The project officer for the contract is responsible for proposing the names of individuals to be on the technical evaluation panel to his/her superiors within the program office. The project officer is expected to be a member of the panel and may serve as its chairperson. The panel is usually composed only of government personnel. Outside evaluators are used only under unusual circumstances, such as when required expertise for evaluation is not available within the government.
The project officer should consult with the contracting officer, who bears official responsibility for the overall contracting process, on aspects of the technical review process and current standards and requirements of the Federal Procurement Regulations and agency regulations on technical evaluation. In general, project officers are given a significant amount of flexibility and latitude in establishing panels and review plans and in conducting technical evaluations. However, a list of persons to serve on the technical evaluation panel and a plan for the technical evaluation must be submitted to the contracting officer before the technical proposals are released to the project officer for panel evaluation. To the extent possible, members of the project team should be included on the panel. The contracting officer should attend the initial panel meeting to clarify the basic rules and considerations under which the technical review will take place. Beyond that, the prime requirements are that the process be equitable, that the basis for the evaluation of each proposal be documented, and that the evaluation be conducted in terms of the criteria published in the RFP for contractor selection and the evaluation plan. The purpose is to make the contractor selection process as fair and open to competition as possible. The process is designed so that all potential offerors have the same base of information on which to assess their qualifications for competition for award of the contract, to know the basis on which a selection will be made and to have the selection based on preset criteria. The goal of this approach is to eliminate the actuality and, to the extent possible, the appearance of bias and preselection.
In assembling the technical review panel, the project officer should try to obtain a balance of areas of survey expertise and subject matter interest as related to the purpose of the contract and the needs of the agency. For example, this might include experts on survey methodology and sample design and experts representing interrelated content and program areas. Expertise and experience available in other agencies should be used as a resource. Representation of other agencies is also advantageous when there is overlapping program interest. A panel that is biased in composition toward a given expertise may distort the contractor selection in that direction independent of the balance built into the technical evaluation criteria and" plan. A minimum of three persons should be on the panel to allow for more effective discussion and resolution of disagreements. The project officer should arrange for a meeting place where panel members can discuss the merits of each of the proposals in private. It is important that there be continuity over the full process of proposal review and contractor selection. Individuals selected for the panel should be available to review later modifications and additions as well as the initial responses to the RFP.
Technical Evaluation of Content and Capability
The technical evaluation process is designed to carry out the objective consideration of the technical merits of proposals submitted in response to an RFP in terms of the published evaluation criteria contained in the RFP. By the end of the technical review process each proposal will be identified as being either acceptable or unacceptable.
A proposal can be determined at the outset to be technically unacceptable without detailed review if it fails to meet a specific expressed requirement of the RFP. As an example, if the RFP requires probability sampling for the planned statistical survey and an offeror proposes only an alternate sampling approach, the proposal can be considered an inappropriate response to the RFP and technically unacceptable.
A technical evaluation plan should be prepared by the program office. It should include information for the panel members based on the specific criteria, as included in the RFP, to be used in rating proposals. The evaluation plan should provide more specific guidance for the panel on details to be looked for within an offeror's proposal in scoring it under various elements of the evaluation criteria. The plan will specify the number of points to be allocated to each part of the evaluation criteria. In general, these criteria should deal with the offeror's approach to the contract tasks and the organizational ability to perform those tasks. The evaluation criteria for ability or capacity to perform, which should have been built into the RFP, should include some forms of the following considerations: demonstrated organizational expertise in the subject area, staff availability and their expertise in the subject area, past experience in surveys under contract, ability to meet special requirements, and, availability of needed resources. The references for past surveys under contract should be checked.
Before discussing the proposal in a group, each member of the evaluation panel should individually read each proposal and prepare a tentative indication of its strengths and weaknesses and a preliminary score on each evaluation criterion using the rating sheets in the technical evaluation plan. Adequate time should be allowed for this key aspect of the process. After this has been done, the panel members should meet to discuss the relative merits of each proposal and try to arrive at a consensus opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal and the possibilities for correcting the weaknesses. The evaluators should then individually rate each proposal. The individual scores of the panel members have to be combined into a single ranking of all of the proposals. While a numerical average of the panel members ratings for each proposal is generally used in developing a ranking, this is not a requirement and depends on the rating plan used. The panel then should identify each proposal as acceptable or unacceptable. However, this can not be done by the use of predetermined cutoff scores.
The definition of a proposal as acceptable or unacceptable is based on technical consideration of the offeror's proposal in terms of the requirements of the RFP "as assessed, using the evaluation criteria published in the RFP. A determination of unacceptability must be supported by concrete factual statements consistent with the evaluation criteria and indicate that the proposal's deficiencies are so major it could not be brought up to an acceptable level without the equivalent of a new proposal being submitted.
The technical evaluation panel members will prepare and sign a report to the contracting officer showing the ranking of the proposals and identifying each as acceptable or unacceptable. The individual rating sheets should be included. A narrative assessment of each proposals strengths and weaknesses must be a part of the report. The report should also include any considerations related to the selection of sources for negotiation and award and any specific issues and questions for discussions.
Discussions With Offerors in the Competitive Range
After the technical evaluation and analysis of the business proposals, the contracting officer will determine which proposals are in the competitive range as a basis for conducting written or oral discussions. Discussions are communications essential for determining a proposals acceptability or to provide the offeror with the opportunity to revise or modify its proposal based on deficiencies or weaknesses noted in the evaluation process. More than one round of discussions may be held by the contracting officer with offerors depending on the situation. The determination for inclusion in the competitive range will be based on price or cost and technical and other important factors as stated in the RFP. The competitive range will include all proposals that have a reasonable chance of being selected for award. In making this determination, the contracting officer may request the technical evaluation panel to review the cost or price data, or request comments from the project officer on labor and other resources needed to conduct the project. Discussions will be held with all offerors in the competitive range.
The competitive range may be narrowed after initial discussions by dropping an offeror if a revised proposal is determined to no longer have a reasonable chance of being awarded.
All discussions with offerors are under the control of the contracting officer. Offerors are given the opportunity to correct deficiencies, resolve uncertainties and errors, and to submit revised material based on these discussions. However, no information is to be given to offerors in these discussions on other offerors' proposals or the evaluations, or on competitive or estimated prices other than to indicate that the Government considers its price too high. No specific help should be given an offeror in rewriting the proposal.
At the end of the discussions with all offerors in the competitive range, each offeror will be notified that the discussions have ended and that they have an opportunity to submit a "best and final" offer by a common cutoff date, including a revision of an earlier offer or a confirmation that a prior offer is a "best and final" offer. These "best and final" technical and business proposals are subject to evaluation on all significant factors by the contracting officer and project officer and, if necessary, a" full technical rescoring and reranking by the technical evaluation panel. At the end of this process, the contracting officer will select for award the proposal that offers the Government the greatest advantage, price, and other factors considered.
While the final selection decision is the responsibility of the contracting officer, this' decision is usually made after consultation with the project officer. Since it will be the project officer's responsibility to monitor technical performance, he or she should be part of the assessment of the relative importance of technical quality and price differences. The analysis of business management and price factors is the contracting officer's domain. Although price or cost is one factor in the final decision, whether certain items are allowable and the assessment of the basis for estimating cost is an administrative issue. Usually, whether a contract is to be a fixed-price or a cost-type is specified in the RFP. However, the final decision to use a fixed-price or a cost-type contract is a contracting officer decision and the ability to estimate certain costs is a factor in this decision.
The Final Award Process
After the successful offeror has been selected, the contracting officer may hold limited negotiations with this offeror. However, these negotiations cannot relate to any factor which could have an effect on the Selection process. It is the Contracting Officer's responsibility to ensure that negotiations do not change the RFP,s requirements nor make any other changes that would impact on the selection process. If there is a material change in requirements because of negotiations, the competition must be reopened to all offerors who were in the competitive range. A significant increase in the offeror's cost proposal may also require reopening of the competition.
After any negotiations are held, the final contract document is prepared. In preparing the contract document, including all the agreed upon terms and conditions, the option should be considered of specifically incorporating the offeror's final proposal to avoid any question as to what was offered and accepted. This can be of particular value when the RFP specified only an area of survey concern and not the specific approach to be used.
After the contract has been awarded, the unsuccessful offerors will be notified. Unsuccessful offerors can, and often do, request debriefing. The project officer and possibly other members of the technical evaluation panel may be. called upon in a requested debriefing of an unsuccessful offeror. It is at this point that the documentation of the basis for technical evaluation can be of critical importance in explaining why the offeror's proposal was not selected for award and in establishing that the competitive process was appropriately conducted. Unsuccessful offerors may formally appeal a contract award. However, a well documented and unbiased basis for selection will reduce such appeals of the selection process.