I recently spoke on a panel in which we covered some of the common mistakes contractors make in their proposal process that create issues preventing them from receiving an award. One of the topics discussed was the importance of strictly following the instructions of a solicitation in preparing and submitting your proposal. Contractors are always seeking an edge to differentiate themselves from the competition. Differentiation in the form of a snazzy graphic, or some truly innovative solution will rarely get a contractor into trouble. However, this quest to stand out could sometimes result in a contractor trying so hard to be clever in its reading of the solicitation that it ends up only outsmarting itself, and potentially jeopardizing its opportunity to win the award.
This appears to have been the case in a recent decision issued by GAO in LOGMET LLC, B-412220.2, December 23, 2015. LOGMET LLC involved a solicitation issued by the Army for logistics services at Fort Rucker, Alabama and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The protest involved a challenge to the Army’s decision to eliminate the protester from the competition on the basis of a non-compliant proposal. At issue was the cost/price matrix submitted by the protester, and whether it conformed to the solicitation’s requirements.
The solicitation in this case required offerors to submit its cost/price matrix in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet included as an attachment to the solicitation. The solicitation informed offerors that the attached spreadsheet was locked and protected, and that offerors would only be able to modify certain cells. Offerors were specifically instructed not to unlock or unprotect the spreadsheet, and that failure to comply with these requirements would render a proposal non-compliant and ineligible for consideration for award.
The Army asserted that the protester modified the cost/price spreadsheet in contravention of the solicitation instructions. The protester naturally challenged this assertion; however, GAO found the Army’s reasoning to be sound and denied the protest. It is unclear from the decision whether the Army ascribed some nefarious purpose to the protester’s alleged modifications to the spreadsheet, or if there was any discussion as to any advantage gained by the protester as a result of its modifications. Rather, the Army made several simple observations:
- The spreadsheet submitted by the protester had a different author and file creation date than the spreadsheet attached to the solicitation.
- Whereas the spreadsheet attached to the solicitation was protected, there was no such protection on the spreadsheet submitted by the protester.
- Several of the columns in the protester’s spreadsheet had been resized, while the protections on the spreadsheet included with the solicitation would not have allowed such column resizing.
The Army speculated that the protester copied the information from the spreadsheet attached to the solicitation, and pasted it into a brand new spreadsheet. GAO agreed with the Army’s reasoning, and denied the protest on that basis. Again, the decision does not discuss any changes made to the substance of the spreadsheets, such as modifying formulas to make the protester’s numbers appear more attractive. However, whether something so egregious was at issue is irrelevant. It is clear from the decision that substantive changes to the spreadsheet were unnecessary for the Army to reasonably conclude that the protester’s proposal was non-compliant.
The protester appeared to offer little in the way of explanation for why the columns were resized in the spreadsheet included with its proposal, or why its spreadsheet had a different author. It could very well be the case that the protester thought wider columns made its proposal look better and made only superficial changes to the cost/price spreadsheet. Either way, the protester appears to have outsmarted itself in trying to submit an improved version of the cost/price spreadsheet. Had it simply followed the solicitation’s instructions and not improperly altered the attached spreadsheet, the protester likely would have remained in the competition and had an opportunity to receive an award.