Something something about all or nothing?

Of all the acronyms that matter to government contractors' business-development teams, no acronym is more important than IDV, which stands for an "indefinite delivery vehicle". An IDV is a way (a vehicle, if you will) for the government to establish the rules of the road for future contracts.[1]

IDVs are "hunting licenses" for government contractors. They're "admission tickets" for future awards. Insert your metaphor here.  

And IDVs are a core part of any government contractor's business.

The thing is, though, that there isn't just one IDV. There are many! There are government-wide IDVs, such as the GSA Schedules program or Government-wide Acquisition Contracts like NASA SEWP. And there are agency-specific IDVs, like the VA's T4NG2 IDIQ![2]

And whenever an agency creates an IDV, there will be unhappy people. I've written before about this dynamic, which I call the "Unhappy Goldilocks" principle:  

If anything, this feels like an example of what I might call the "Unhappy Goldilocks principle". If you're the contracting officer, you know that people (the program! lawyers! the competition advocate! incumbents! challengers!) are going to be unhappy with you no matter what you do, so you're trying to find that sweet spot where the number of unhappy people is "just right".

Given that dynamic, it was unsurprising to read last week that, after the Commerce Department announced 15 winners for its Commerce Acquisition for Transformational Technology Services (CATTS)[2], an IDV worth up to $1.5 billion over 10 years, there would be bitter protestors and a critical report from the beltway press about the procurement and subsequent litigation:

So despite the need to expand its small business industrial base and the Biden administration’s emphasis on supporting small firms, Commerce is making it harder for the unsuccessful bidders of CATTS to continue to work in the federal market.

"We didn’t want to protest, but we are in a situation that we’ve never been in before," said one industry executive, who requested anonymity because they feared retribution from Commerce. "If we don’t get on CATTS, we think we will be shut out from Commerce."

The industry executive, like several others who chose to speak anonymously, expressed disbelief, frustration and bewilderment about how poorly Commerce ran the procurement and how their actions fly in the face of the Biden administration’s small business focus.

And although it's not Festivus season, the article sure aired all of the grievances of the #govcon set:

The situation has only gotten worse over the past decade with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s push for category management, use of the meaningless term "best-in-class" contract and the emphasis for agencies to focus their spending on these types of vehicles.

Category management and BIC complaints? Check.

From the beginning, vendors bidding on the procurement said it went awry. The year-plus long solicitation process included 13 amendments, 2,198 questions submitted by vendors and extension after extension of the due dates.

Complaints about procurement timeframes and the unhealthy pre-solicitation question and answer process? Check.

But instead of Commerce seeing the concerns outlined by a dozen protestors, knowing the costs that potentially could be incurred by the small firms and taking corrective action, even to just reevaluate the bids, the vendors say Commerce is fighting tooth and nail.

Chandler said the protest is costing him north of $125,000.

Another vendor said they have spent more than $25,000 and could cost them upwards of $80,000 before deciding with withdraw.

A third vendor said the cost of lawyers is bleeding them.

Complaints about protests and the cost of lawyers? Check.[3]

And yet, my hot take — perhaps predictable to my readers — is that the complaints here maybe miss the mark?

Here's a fact that I find utterly delightful!

Of the 87 bids Commerce received, Chandler said 75% earned an unsatisfactory rating for their technical proposal.

Can you imagine? That's amazing! It's remarkable! It's downright spectacular! Imagine being a contracting officer and having almost 75% of the proposals being unsatisfactory? Imagine being a government contractor and spending a year and almost $100,000 in bid-and-proposal budget, only to learn that you and, like, 64 of your competitors had unsatisfactory technical proposals? Incredible!

It's especially notable because of the painfully low expectations our industry has of competition and service differentiation. Here's a quote that I swear I didn't make up:

"Where you have a large number of contractors differentiating among them is a challenge. When you get hundreds or thousands of bidders on a contract like this, I'm a big fan of letting them all in."

Uh... apparently not? Apparently, you can eliminate 3 out of 4 vendors right away because they didn't even get through the first wicket!

And although I am not out here trying to defend CATTS and I'm sure it's as bad as everyone says, maybe also it's just fine that vendors got eliminated? For example, here's a thing:

"When developing the proposal, you are looking at section M, the evaluation criteria. That is how they must evaluate the proposals. It’s in black and white. But after we got the debrief, we were disqualified because of some of the wording of the evaluation criteria," he said. "In Phase 1, Commerce said demonstrate your ability to meet the criteria across four subsections, with each being weighted the same. We hung our hat on those criteria. But during the debriefing the government said we failed to provide an approach in our technical evaluation. They never asked for an approach, but that is where they dinged us. And it was common across all protests."

Other executives offered similar debriefing stories where Commerce said the reason why they failed the technical evaluation was a lack of an explicit approach, even though the RFP never asked for that in the evaluation criteria.

I had to re-read this because this part of the article was amusing, if not totally baffling. "We failed to provide an approach in our technical evaluation. They never asked for an approach, but that is where they dinged us"? He actually said that to a reporter?

Huh? According to the solicitation posted on SAM, three of the four technical subfactors in section M explicitly required an approach! Here's sub b: "Demonstrate how the Offeror’s approach will adapt to evolving technological innovations and the dynamic nature of the organization". Here's sub c: "Demonstrate the Offeror’s ability and approach to manage and staff (to include retaining) key personnel and non-key personnel". Here's sub d: "Demonstrate the Offeror’s understanding and approach to provide a smooth, undisrupted transition".

The solicitation unambiguously said (in Section L) that offerors should "provide a detailed technical approach to performing the work in the Final CATTS PWS (Attachment 1)".

Now, I am definitely, most certainly, absolutely not anyone's lawyer in any of this and have no information other than what's in the public press and on, it's pending litigation etc etc etc. But if you did not provide an approach in response to CATTS, it sure makes sense to me that it might end badly for you.

I'm legitimately confused as to how you could read this solicitation and not think you needed a technical approach. I guess we'll see how it plays out in litigation?

Meanwhile, the article offered multiple lessons learned and paths forward, such as "let[ting] all minimally qualified contractors on the vehicle and let them compete at the task order level, and not pick an arbitrary number of awardees" or creating continuous onramps or "let[ting] all the protestors on the contract because the difference between 15 awards and 27 awards is minimal when it comes to administrative costs and likelihood of receiving too many bids per task order also is small."

And I mean... sure? These are all options. But are any of them any good? Seems to me that you'd have some pretty unhappy people with any of those options.

To his credit, the reporter here nails the dynamic at play: "[e]very agency that decides to arbitrarily limit the number of awards under a massive winner-take-all type of contract will face these same challenges." Plus 100. Strong endorse. Yes!

Yes and! As long as IDVs are going to be a thing, you'll have always have some Unhappy Goldilocks making awards.

Yes and! IDVs are always going to be thing, so you should expect that protests and complaints about agency evaluations aren't going to go away. You should expect protestors to lose when they don't follow solicitations' instructions. To an Unhappy Goldilocks, that's just right.

Yes and! For the rest of us, them's the breaks!

[1] Outside of government, an IDV would likely be called a "master service agreement" or a "framework agreement".

[2] Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology Next Generation 2.

[3] Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the CATTS backronym. At some point, I started playing Wordle in hard mode and now I recognize that the choice to have "Commerce" in your procurement title is limiting if you're trying to create a suitable backronym. According to the Visual Wordle Solver, there are 2309 possible Wordle solutions. Starting with "C" brings you down to 198 words. Once you've put "Technology" in the mix, you're down to 29 words. Still, though. Maybe CADET? Maybe CRAFT? Add another T for Transformation[3a] like the VA, and you're down to CATTY, which obviously isn't going to work. Someone should really have stepped in and led a workshop with sticky notes or something here.

[3a] Why did the VA and Commerce both feel compelled to have their contract vehicles include Technology and Transformation in their names? As someone who knows a thing or two about Technology Transformation Services, there are certainly other words out there available. Just sayin'.

[4] There's another, broader complaint about small business goals and category mangement in the article. But I am somewhat arbitrarily ignoring it because (a) Commerce is claiming that most (98%) of the spend under the CATTS IDIQ will go to smalls, (b) everyone knows that number is almost certainly ignoring subcontracting dollars and pass throughs to other-than-small businesses, and (c) obviously no one really should expect that a $1.5 billion IDIQ would go to nontraditionals. As long as the federal government continues to pay attention to top-line small-business spending goals without regard to genuine small-business development, these outcomes are utterly predictable.

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