On January 29, 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its decision sustaining AllWorld Language Consultants, Inc.’s (AllWorld) protest of the General Services Administration’s (GSA) task order award to SOS International, Ltd. (“SOSI”) for linguistic support services in southwest Asia.  AllWorld Language Consultants, Inc., B-411481.3, 2016 WL 358949 (Comp. Gen. Jan. 6, 2016).  In a decision of potentially significant importance to schedule contractors, GAO found that a contractor’s proposed labor categories must “align precisely” with solicitation requirements for the contractor to be eligible for a task order award.

Background

GSA, on behalf of the Department of the Air Force, issued a Request for Quotations (RFQ) to acquire linguistic support services at various locations within southwest Asia.  The RFQ contemplated the award of a fixed-price task order on a best-value basis, with a one-year base period and two one-year options.  The RFQ advised firms that quotations would be evaluated based on technical approach, past performance, and price, in order of importance.  The procurement was limited to holders of Federal Supply Schedule (FSS) contracts.

GSA received several quotations in response to its RFQ and, based on its initial review, made award to SOSI.  In response to a protest filed by AllWorld, GSA subsequently took corrective action to reevaluate quotations under the technical approach factor, but ultimately affirmed its award to SOSI.

AllWorld followed with a protest to GAO, alleging, among other things, that SOSI’s quotation was technically unacceptable because SOSI proposed a labor category that did not conform to the solicitation’s requirements.  In particular, AllWorld argued that SOSI quoted a labor category that did not include many of the duties required under the solicitation, including oral expression of translation capabilities, producing idiomatic translations using correct syntax and speech, and conducting consecutive, accurate translations of ongoing conversations and activities.  AllWorld further asserted that SOSI’s proposed labor category was limited to providing written translations at a SOSI facility and did not contemplate services being performed in warzone-like conditions, as would actually be required under the task order.

In response, GSA maintained that contractors’ FSS labor categories generally do not “align precisely” with solicitation requirements and that GSA accounted for this fact by considering SOSI’s technical quotation to determine what duties SOSI’s proposed linguists would actually perform.

GAO’s Decision

GAO ruled that GSA’s evaluation of SOSI’s quotation under the technical approach factor was unreasonable.  Specifically, GAO found that SOSI quoted a single labor category to perform all linguist duties required by the RFQ and that this labor category did not address numerous requirements called for under the solicitation.  For example, SOSI’s proposed labor category did not include providing oral translation services and expressly did not contemplate providing linguist services outside of SOSI facilities.

Moreover, GAO found that, although SOSI’s quotation identified other labor categories of linguists that could potentially satisfy solicitation requirements, these other labor categories were neither included nor defined in SOSI’s underlying FSS contract.  Further, SOSI’s price quotation did not reference these labor categories but rather was focused on the single, non-conforming labor category.  This allowed SOSI to gain a significant competitive advantage in the procurement because the labor category on which it relied was substantially less expensive than SOSI’s other FSS labor categories.

Significantly, GAO rejected the GSA’s position “that SOSI could identify a labor category under its FSS contract that did not meet all of the requirements of the [Performance Work Statement], but could somehow enhance or alter the narrative description and qualifications of that labor category through the technical portion of its quotation.”  GAO stated that the “labor categories identified and described in each firm’s underlying FSS contract are fixed, discrete, specific labor category descriptions that are contractually binding and not subject to alteration, just as the technical specifications for products available under a firm’s FSS contract are fixed, discrete, specific, contractually binding, and not subject to alteration.”  As such, GAO ruled that:

To the extent a quoted labor category description under a firm’s FSS contract does not, in the words of GSA, ‘align precisely’ with the requirements of a given solicitation, the firm may not properly alter the underlying labor category description through the terms of its quotation.  Rather, where a firm’s quoted labor category description does not align with the requirements of the solicitation, it means that the quoted labor category does not meet the requirements of the solicitation, and therefore and cannot serve as the basis for issuing a task order to the firm.

Finding that AllWorld was prejudiced by GSA’s evaluation, GAO sustained AllWorld’s protest and recommended that GSA terminate the task order issued to SOSI and make a new source selection decision to an eligible offeror.  Notably, in making its recommendation, GAO could not recommend that GSA reconsider SOSI’s quotation because SOSI’s underlying FSS contract had expired, rendering it ineligible to revise its quotation or to receive a new delivery order.

Significance

At a time when the federal government is aggressively pushing schedule contracting and consolidating contracting vehicles to leverage its buying power, GAO’s decision represents a significant obstacle to agencies’ reliance on schedule contracts.  As a result of GAO’s decision, agencies will need to find a balance between establishing sufficiently specific solicitation requirements and requirements so specific as to prevent contractors from quoting labor categories that “align precisely.”  If agencies are unable to walk this narrow line effectively, more and more agencies may ultimately elect to acquire needed services outside of GSA’s schedule program, which is likely the exact result the federal government hopes to avoid.