Contracting officers oversee many moving parts in the complex procurement process. But perhaps no other element of contracting strikes fear into their hearts more than the debriefing.
For most procurement awards, contractors that were not selected can request to receive information on why they did not win, either in letter form or a sit-down meeting. Contracting officers worry that in-person debriefings, in particular, might disclose information that would trigger a bid protest. Managing debriefings is a tricky balance, but doing it right can save agencies time and money.
Acquisition officials first need to shake off their fear of providing the contractor with cause for a protest and acknowledge the significant benefits of debriefings, to both industry and government. Debriefings allow the government to share information that can improve the quality of proposals. They also offer rare face-to-face communication between contracting and acquisition officials and their counterparts in the private sector. For companies, this improves their chances of winning contracts. For federal officials, it drives better proposals, stronger competition, and more value for taxpayers.
Debriefing officials must be aware of what they are required to disclose and what they are prohibited from disclosing. The Federal Acquisition Regulation requires them to reveal deficiencies in the proposal, the cost or price, the technical rating assigned not only to the losing bid but also to the winner, and past performance information, among other things.
The contracting officer may not, however, reveal such information as trade secrets; confidential commercial, financial or manufacturing information; and the names of the individuals providing references about past performance.
Some agencies, including NASA, encourage debriefing officials to give as much information as possible. From a legal standpoint, contracting officers have extensive control over bid information, but NASA’s guidelines point out that offerors spend substantial amounts of money and time in the procurement process and therefore “deserve to receive a thorough and meaningful debriefing.”
Officials must be prepared to present the information and answer questions. This means reviewing source selection material, the proposals of the contractor requesting the debriefing and the awardee, and evaluation sheets. They also should meet with members of the evaluation team to get a complete sense of how the decision was made. “Going into a debriefing unprepared is the surest way to lose the confidence of the offeror and lose the opportunity to effectively communicate the agency position,” NASA’s guidelines state. Avoiding that pitfall might even require rehearsing debriefings for complex procurements.
Including members of the technical evaluation team in the meeting sends the message that the agency wants the contractor to understand how its proposal was evaluated and how it fell short.
Just as important is managing the tone of the conversation. Contractors will be disappointed and possibly angry. Remember that conduct and attitude will create a perception of how the procurement was conducted overall.
Building credibility and rapport with the private sector must be a priority throughout the procurement process—from the beginning through debriefing.
Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.