Pinning the tail

Competing for government contracts is an open-book test. In black and white for all to see, the government will tell you what it needs, when it needs it, what you need to do to win, and how you'll be evaluated.

Or rather, it's an open-book test with a twist. In my experience, responding to government solicitations actually ends up being like the classic party game "pin the tail on the donkey." People get all spun up, get a bit confused about which direction to go, walk toward walls, and then try and hit as close to a target as possible. No one really enjoys playing the game except maybe the winner, and even then the winner still feels a bit dazed from all of it.

Sure, the rules may be straightforward. But the actual process is disorienting and, even if you actually successfully pin the tail on the donkey, you might lose because someone else was closer!

In a bad news/good news situation, the bad news is that if you try and google for "winning strategies for pin the tail on the donkey," you're unlikely to hit a good explainer. Kids should blog more, I guess? The good news is that the GAO recently decided a case that teaches one very practical lesson for proposal writers in the fog of color reviews[1] about how to win the game: be extremely direct![2]

That case, Armstrong Elevator Company, involved a solicitation from the Department of Veterans Affairs to replace the elevators in a hospital building. To select a winner, the VA would evaluate past performance and price. According to the GAO, for past performance, "offerors were required to provide a detailed summary of three recent and substantially complete contracts for elevator replacement work in an occupied hospital environment." And each project would be evaluated based on how relevant the projects were and the government's confidence level based on those projects.

Armstrong, in response to the solicitation, provided the VA with five examples of elevator-replacement projects at hospitals for its past performance.[3] Despite those five examples, though, the VA only found one of them to be "very relevant." The VA also assigned a weakness to Armstrong's past performance because it didn't describe how it used subcontractors. Meanwhile, the competition—Elevated Technologies, Inc.—scored better, had a 2% higher cost, and won.

It is important to observe here that Armstrong probably actually had very relevant past performance. But, it just didn't say so. Here's the GAO:

Armstrong’s proposal did not clearly show that the projects involved work similar to the solicitation’s requirements, i.e., Armstrong’s proposal did not demonstrate that the projects involved performing work in active hospital environments. For example, Armstrong’s second project, titled "Replace Building 32 Elevator for Safety," was described as having been performed in "an occupied Federal Government facility". Although the narrative stated the building was located in a VA medical center, the proposal did not state whether Building 32 was a hospital facility or a support building. The only reference to working in a hospital environment was a single statement that Armstrong worked outside of normal hours because it was working in a hospital environment.

I mean, surely Armstrong knew that the "Building 32 Elevator" was at the VA when it put together the proposal. But Armstrong didn't say that in the proposal. Armstrong only highlighted that Building 32 was a federal facility, not that it was an occupied hospital environment. You have to be direct!

Similarly, Armstrong received a weakness because it didn't explain how it used subcontractors in its projects. Why not? Because Armstrong didn't actually use subcontractors. Again, the GAO:

Armstrong also challenges the rating of satisfactory confidence the agency assigned to the firm’s proposal, arguing that it was unreasonable for the VA to assess a weakness to its proposal for failing to discuss the use of subcontractors in the project narratives when Armstrong did not utilize subcontractors for the projects. The agency responds that there was no way for the [VA] to know that Armstrong did not utilize subcontractors without Armstrong providing that information in its proposal. The agency states: “The Protester did not provide any information to the government about its use (or non-use) of subcontractors, and it would have been unreasonable for the government to assume one way or the other what this meant.”

I can genuinely sympathize with Armstrong here. As a Midwesterner, I deeply understand that bias toward modesty. But winning in government contracting requires an East Coast mindset for getting right to the point. If you didn't use subs, that's great! You just need to channel your inner Doja Cat and just say so.[4]

Because pin the tail on the donkey isn't just about getting the tail on the donkey. It's about being the closest to the butt of the donkey. And if you leave too much room for the government to figure it out, you'll have done all that spinning for nothing.


[1] As a reminder, "color team" reviews are part of a common process in proposal development where reviewers will review various drafts of the proposal before submission.

[2] I concede that it's been a while since I've played an actual game of pin the tail on the donkey. But if I were playing it today, I'd like to imagine that my strategy would be to move as straight as possible to the wall. Work with me folks, it's a metaphor.

[3] Sigh. They provided five projects even though the instructions asked for three. Did no one tell Armstrong about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch? "Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shalt be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out."

[4] There's a reasonable chance that some of my readers aren't familiar with Doja Cat's repertoire. She's a rapper and had a very popular song that played on the radio a few years ago called "Say So." Fortunately, my kids haven't heard of the Holy Hand Grenade yet. So now consider yourself ahead!

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