In a bid protest, the disappointed offeror often alleges that the agency failed to conduct meaningful discussions or engaged in unequal discussions. A threshold inquiry is whether the agency engaged in discussions. The CFC and GAO approach the question of whether agency communications constitute discussions differently, and a protester may want to consider that difference when selecting a protest forum.

FAR 15.306 defines clarifications as “limited exchanges, between the Government and offerors, that may occur when award without discussions is contemplated.” The FAR does not expressly define “discussions,” but it explains that “discussions” include negotiations that “are undertaken with the intent of allowing the offeror to revise its proposal.” The FAR used to limit clarifications to communications about relatively small matters, such as eliminating clerical mistakes or minor irregularities. However, the rules were revised in 1997 to allow a free exchange of information without requiring discussions. Decisions from the GAO and CFC reveal that the two protest forums apply the FAR provisions differently, with the CFC appearing to embrace a more substantial exchange of information that can still be characterized as clarifications.

Both GAO and the CFC recognize that, if an offeror is given an opportunity to revise its proposal, the agency has engaged in discussions. Several GAO and CFC cases refer to this as the “acid test.” The tough cases come when either (i) questions (often called “clarifications” by the agency) seek information that is necessary to determine technical acceptability of the proposal, or (2) the agency seeks a substantial amount of “clarify[ing]” information and an offeror’s response approaches (or crosses) the line of changing the proposal.

GAO has ruled that, when an agency uses information received from an offeror after submission of a proposal to determine the technical acceptability of a proposal, “discussions” occurred. For example, inEvergreen Helicopters of Alaska, Inc., GAO analyzed the “acquisition of fixed-wing aircraft services in the central region of Africa,” and considered an EN requesting information about the aircraft type and tail numbers. Such a request could be seen as soliciting information inadvertently omitted from the proposal, but GAO ruled that the communications constituted discussions because the information was necessary to determine technical acceptability. In contrast, in Tetra Tech, Inc., GAO held that the agency’s email to the awardee asking the awardee to confirm that it was accepting the end-state performance objective (as opposed to the technical approach) qualified as a clarification because the awardee was confirming information already in the proposal, not providing information that constituted a modification or revision of its proposal in response to the email.

Importantly, GAO doesn’t necessarily accept the agency’s characterization of the communications—but, instead, analyzes the parties’ actions. This lack of deference is illustrated in Evergreen Helicopters, in which GAO rejected the agency’s characterization and argument that the evaluation notices were clarifications because the offerors were not allowed to revise their proposals. Similarly, in Kardex Remstar, LLC, the agency sent an offeror a spreadsheet with spaces for the offeror to explain how its proposal satisfied the agency’s requirements. The agency characterized the communications as “clarifications” and expressly prohibited the offeror from changing its proposal. GAO rejected the agency’s characterization because the information was used to determine technical acceptability–even though the offeror could not revise its proposal.

In contrast, CFC decisions generally find that discussions occur only when an offeror is given the opportunity to revise its proposal, and the court is less likely to characterize the provision of information related to a technical acceptability determination as “discussions.” For example, in Mil-Mar Century Corp. v. U.S., the protester argued that an email asking the awardee to substantiate its proposed price, clarify its costs for an item, address a discrepancy in its labor hours, and clarify the adequacy of its proposed labor hours qualified as discussions. Although the agency included a disclaimer on the emails that the communications did not constitute discussions, the protester argued that the exchanges were discussions because the information the awardee provided was required by the RFP and essential to determine acceptability. The court deferred to the agency’s characterization and found the information was not a material requirement. The court also noted that “an exchange can constitute a clarification, and not a discussion, even whe[n] the information provided was ‘essential to evaluation criteria.’”Evergreen Helicopters and Kardex suggest that GAO would have agreed with the protester because the agency used the information to determine technical acceptability. 

With respect to the amount of deference the CFC should give to an agency’s characterization of the communications, the Federal Circuit has held that the court should defer to the agency’s interpretation of the FAR’s definition if the agency’s interpretation is permissible. In Davis Boat Works, Inc., the CFC applied that reasoning to hold that a 7-page letter with a 25-page “process guide” the awardee submitted during the first round of evaluation constituted clarifications because neither the letter nor the guide substantially revised the offeror’s proposal. Instead, the court found that the Process Guide explained how the offeror would satisfy the RFP’s management approach requirements. The court was not concerned with the amount of information that the offeror provided, observing “any clarification must necessarily convey new information to the agency.” The court further stated: “in close cases, it is well-established that the government’s classification of a particular communication as a clarification or a discussion ‘is entitled to deference from the court,’ as long as that classification is permissible and reasonable.”  In contrast, GAO has stated: “the agency’s characterization of the exchange is not controlling, as it is the actions of the parties that determine whether discussions have been held.”

Although there are many issues to consider when deciding where to file a bid protest, contractors might not sufficiently consider the different approaches that GAO and CFC take to determining whether discussions occurred. If a contractor anticipates that a discussions-related issue may become important in a protest being considered, subtle differences between the way the CFC and GAO evaluate these issues should be analyzed carefully.