When evaluating proposals, the Government will identify what it considers strengths of the various offerors’ proposals. The Government’s evaluation of the strengths of the various proposals is key to the ultimate source selection decision. The Government typically enjoys a lot of discretion in identifying and comparing these strengths, but this discretion is not unlimited. For instance, the Government cannot consider aspects of an offeror’s proposal unrelated to the current project as strengths. And the Government cannot consider a trait that it did not identify in the RFP even though that trait may otherwise be desirable. GAO recently addressed these constraints in Information International Associates, Inc., B-416826.2, May 28, 2019.

Information International Associates involved an RFP issued by the Department of the Air Force. The RFP sought proposals for developing and maintaining an internet home page for the Homeland Defense and Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC). The website provided a timeline of 60 days from the date of contract award for the awardee to bring the website online.

Quanterion Solutions, Inc., submitted a bid for the HDIAC contract. In its bid, Quanterion one-upped the RFP’s 60-day timetable: It proposed to have a redesigned, cloud compatible preliminary HDIAC website running from day one of the contract.

The Air Force liked this idea. For one, it thought that this cloud-based plan would provide efficiencies as the Government sought to move other, related websites to a cloud environment. For another, the Air Force considered that this solution would reduce or eliminate the 60-day timeline set forth in the RFP. It therefore considered this cloud-based plan as a strength for Quanterion. Ultimately, partially on the basis of that strength, the Air Force awarded the contract to Quanterion.

Another bidder, Information International Associates, Inc. (IIA), protested the award. According to IIA, the Air Force had acted unreasonably by considering Quanterion’s cloud-based solution a strength. Upon review, GAO agreed and recommended that the Air Force conduct a new evaluation.

This recommendation rested on two grounds. First, GAO agreed with IIA that the cloud-based nature of the HDIAC website had nothing to do with the RFP’s stated goals. Specifically, the RFP had sought proposals for a contractor-provided website to disseminate information relevant to the HDIAC user community. The nature of the website—whether hosted on the cloud or otherwise—was immaterial to the HDIAC community’s ability to access and use the information.

Importantly, GAO did not question the Air Force’s assertion that it would receive a benefit from Quanterion’s cloud expertise. But that was beside the point. GAO stated that, when evaluating strengths, the Government can only consider those benefits that are “reasonably and logically encompassed by the announced evaluation criteria.”  This means that the Government can only consider those strengths that an offeror would reasonably have anticipated the Government rewarding based on the RFP. Since nothing in the present RFP suggested that a cloud-based platform would be rewarded, the Air Force could not consider such a platform a strength.

Second, GAO took issue with the Air Force’s decision to reward Quanterion for proposing to put up a preliminary website on day one of the contract. The RFP said nothing of a “preliminary” HDIAC website. Instead, it sought a fully functioning website. Because the RFP sought only a fully functioning website, Quanterion’s ability to provide a preliminary website was of no moment. The Air Force’s decision to consider that ability a strength was therefore unreasonable.

Information International Associates shows that the Government’s analysis of strengths is confined to the terms of the RFP. This provides a lesson for those who contract with the Government: when submitting a proposal, the strengths highlighted in that proposal should be those that conform to the terms of the RFP. Other benefits that the contractor may be able to offer—no matter how desirable—cannot be considered if they do not fall within the bounds of what the Government asked for.