Enhanced debriefings work so why can’t GSA move faster to make them permanent?

Play the “breaking news” sounder. Ring the alarm bells. Get the 1920s newsboy out on the corner of 18th and F Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C., yelling to all who will listen: “If you give contractors more details on why they lost a bid, they will be happier and less likely to protest.”

That was one of the major findings of the General Services Administration’s pilot on enhanced debriefings. And it’s one we’ve known for a long time. It’s one of those results that most industry experts could’ve predicted with little fear of being wrong.

Called the In-depth Feedback through Open Reporting Methods (INFORM), GSA tested out the approach across 50 acquisitions starting in October 2018 and found the overwhelming majority of contractors and federal acquisition workers said giving more information about why a bid failed was valuable.

“Our goal was to provide industry with unsolicited insight into why they did or did not win the award, with the hope that the added information would help them improve future submissions,” wrote Jeff Koses, GSA’s senior procurement executive in a blog post.

GSA compared the results of the INFORM briefings to those of traditional post-award discussions.

“The pilot received very favorable reviews from industry. Overall, when compared to our traditional model, industry rated the INFORM pilot higher in perception of the fairness of GSA’s evaluation and selection process (average rating of 4.58 out of a possible 5 for the test group vs. 4.14 for the control group). The pilot group also gave a higher score to the quality of information being provided (4.50 vs. 4.10) and found the information useful in improving their future submissions (4.50 vs. 4.33),” Koses wrote. “The acquisition workforce also provided feedback on their experience with the pilot through the Acquisition Workforce Survey. Overall, the acquisition workforce preferred INFORM over traditional methods with 73% saying it was a good idea and 74% said the INFORM process did not cause any delays.”

The fact that industry and government liked the enhanced debriefings is not surprising.

Anecdotal evidence going back decades will show the more agencies and contractors communicate, share information and explain their positions, the more successful acquisitions end up.

Now add GSA’s pilot to those of the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which have been testing out a similar enhanced debriefing approach for much of the last two years, and it’s clear the time is now to push through a Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) Council rule to define, standardize and mandate enhanced debriefings.

Congress also is on board, putting a provision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that required DoD to test out this approach. The Section 809 Panel of acquisition experts also recommended the Pentagon use enhanced debriefings on a larger number of procurements with the idea that DoD will face fewer protests.

“Most debriefings handled through written, short explanations about why you lost, and they are totally ineffective,” said Rob Burton, an attorney with Crowell & Moring and former deputy administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, back in February 2019 when GSA publicly announced the launch of INFORM. “They raise all sorts of questions for contractors which are never answered but many times only through the bid protest process.”

So why is GSA taking on INFORM 2.0 and testing this enhanced debriefing approach on another 300 procurements? There are some who believe the scientific method of test, review results and learn, and then test on a larger scale to learn more before wide scale implementation.

“Testing it out at this large scale will let us formalize and expand workforce training, and incorporate refinements as a result of lessons learned through the INFORM pilot,” Koses wrote.

There is nothing wrong with that approach. It has worked well for hundreds of years.

But acquisition experts, procurement attorneys and other observers will tell you, the government doesn’t need a slow, risk averse approach for this. The evidence is clear and the time for enhanced briefings is now.

Schedules consolidation phase 2

The INFORM 2.0 pilot is one piece of GSA’s Federal Marketplace Strategy. It has been a busy winter for moving the FMP forward.

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GSA announced on Jan. 31 phase 2 of the multiple award schedule consolidation effort, which includes releasing a mass modification to all contract holders.

“During the ‘mass mod,’ MAS Schedule holders are asked to update their contracts so their terms and conditions match those in the new MAS solicitation,” GSA stated in its release.

GSA completed Phase 1 October with a review of the schedule contracts and by reducing about two-thirds of the number of Special Item Numbers (SINs) as part of a move to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).

Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Julie Dunne said, “There will be no change to contract numbers which makes the transition less burdensome overall. And, we’ve been steadily training our contracting workforce to ensure a seamless transition. Soon we’ll have just one schedule, with a single set of terms and conditions, making it much easier to buy and offer complete solutions.”

The mass mod also will let vendors have access to special item numbers (SINs) that they previously couldn’t bid against unless they received another contract.

GSA also is updating its templates for the schedules including the price proposal document to ensure vendors know what information to provide and contracting officers would know what to expect and how to evaluate the data.

GSA said Phase 3 of the schedule consolidation effort is expected in the second half of 2020.

The plan to modernize and consolidate 24 schedule contracts to one started in November 2018. The goal is create a single point of entry for the $31 billion program.