Why GAO’s Bid Protest Dismissals for Alliant 2 Are a Big Deal

Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com

The Alliant sequel emphasizes value, not lowest price.

The Government Accountability Office’s recent dismissal of pre-award bid protests against the Alliant 2 governmentwide contracting vehicle will have ramifications beyond a potential $65 billion worth of IT services it could bring to the federal government over the next 10 years.

That’s because GAO’s decision is essentially an affirmation of the “outside the box” strategy used by the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service in devising Alliant 2, according to FAS Deputy Commissioner Kevin Youel Page.

Alliant 2’s contracting language combines an objective methodology—asking vendors to self-score criteria in points-based fashion—with a GSA-determined baseline for fair and reasonable pricing. Bidders are evaluated on capabilities, not simply price.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

It’s a rarely used methodology that builds on the approach used in the One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services and the Human Capital and Training Solutions contracts, and one, Youel Page told Nextgov Wednesday, that is the opposite of the lowest price, technically acceptable selection process. LPTA contracts prioritize the lowest price, which plays better for commodity hardware as opposed to complex services, like cybersecurity.

“How we’ve been working through Alliant 2, [GAO’s decision] really is a foot-stomp on the idea that GSA, in particular, is tremendously focused on value,” Youel Page said. “What we are trying to do is awarding to the highest-rated technical officers with a fair and reasonable price.”

If LPTA is on the left of the contracting spectrum, Youel Page said Alliant 2’s selection criteria “is the furthest thing on the right.”

“We are promoting best-value at the furthest part of the spectrum we can be at,” he said.

In creating objective measures of value, such as past performance, and then simply validating self-reported data by vendors, Youel Page said GSA can “let industry come to us with the best they have to offer.” Contracting officers don’t have to engage in time-consuming tradeoffs that “tend to be the basis for disagreements that get litigated,” Youel Page said.

The evaluation process, Youel Page said, is more cut-and-dried and less subjective. He characterized bid protest as “important checks and balances on programs,” but their increased frequency has become a frustration point for certain contracting agencies.

So far, the evaluation process for Alliant 2—like OASIS before it—has withstood protests on varying grounds.

“There were a lot of issues raised by protesters, and in every instance, GAO sided with GSA,” Brian Friel, founder of One Nation Analytics, told Nextgov. “This decision seals the deal that this scorecard approach is protest-proof, essentially. What it does, this decision on top of other protest decisions over the years that have failed—but this one being so extensive—is give other agencies confidence to use the scorecard methodology. The point-system approach works.”

That isn’t to say the methodology is perfect.

Critics say it favors established contractors, or as Friel calls it, the “usual suspects” problem.

The points system can also be tough on recently graduated small businesses. For example, a company with a great product could miss out on points if, for example, the scoring system awards significant points for something like having held a previous contract worth more than $100 million. A recently graduated small business would not have that and could miss out.

It also isn’t necessarily foolproof. The contracting agency still has to evaluate scores properly, even though more of the front-end onus is on bidders that self-report data.

“You can lose protests after awards for not treating everyone fairly, so the execution still matters,” Friel said.

Nonetheless, GSA is excited to have “expanded the repertoire that is available to customers in government,” and Alliant 2 figures to have a large impact on contractors and contracting agencies for the foreseeable future. Other agencies have taken note.

“We have certainly spoken with a number of agencies who asked us about our evaluation of OASIS, and I think we’re happy to share what we’ve done,” Youel Page said. “I’m most proud of our GSA folks. They’ve done thoughtful, innovative work and work that, according to GAO, is well within the foursquare of the FAR, but certainly outside the box people thought they were living in before last week.”