Air Force contracting officials have reaped both pity and condemnation this month for their missteps in setting up a $35 billion tanker program. On June 18, the Government Accountability Office criticized the military service for failing to adhere to its own rules when it awarded the contract in February to Northrop Grumman Corp. instead of Boeing Co. GAO urged the service to reconsider the competition to ensure both bidders have a fair shot -- even to the point of starting over.
The pity some observers feel stems from a 2003 procurement scandal involving a previous tanker contract awarded to Boeing that sent then-Air Force procurement chief Darleen Druyun to the slammer for cronyism. In the wake of that disaster, current procurement officials tried to make this new contract a model of fair and impartial competition -- work that the ruling from GAO seems to make fruitless. The condemnation, of course, stems from the same infamous source. Given the Druyun debacle, how could Air Force officials make "significant" errors, as GAO put it, that called into question the military service's fairness and competence?
Whether one feels sympathy or rebuke, the lesson for federal managers is a simple one: Do as you say. For most of the errors that GAO discovered, the Air Force had not followed the ground rules its officials put in place at the start of the latest tanker competition.
"The Air Force, in making the award decision, did not assess the relative merits of the proposals in accordance with the evaluation criteria identified in the solicitation," GAO wrote in a June 18 statement explaining why it sustained a protest from the losing bidder, Boeing. The solicitation, which laid out the Air Force's requirements for the tanker deal, listed criteria that were not in the end used to pick a winner, according to GAO.
Conversely, the Air Force gave Northrop Grumman extra credit for proposing to exceed the Air Force's expectations on one requirement, even though the service explicitly said in the solicitation that officials wouldn't give extra credit for surpassing the stated needs. In addition, the Air Force dismissed Northrop Grumman's failure to address another solicitation requirement as an "administrative oversight," even though bidders were expected to address all solicitation requirements.
Those errors resulted from the Air Force failing to follow the rules it laid out in the solicitation. Officials instead ignored or changed the rules along the way. In addition to those problems, Air Force officials at first told Boeing that they had fully satisfied one requirement. Later, Air Force officials determined that Boeing only partially satisfied the requirement. But, GAO found, the Air Force never informed the company of the downgraded evaluation. That gave Boeing no chance to address the Air Force's concerns.
GAO suggested that the Air Force reopen the competition to both bidders. Most agencies follow GAO's suggestions, even though they are nonbinding. GAO also noted that the Air Force is allowed to change the rules -- the requirements in its solicitation -- as long as it informs bidders so they have an opportunity to adjust their proposals. Companies often complain when agencies change their contract requirements midstream. But they complain more when agencies change the requirements without letting them know.
That's part of the lesson for federal managers. If you change the rules, let everyone know. And whether they change or stay the same, follow them completely.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.