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Understanding the Federal Source Selection Process

When the federal government issues an RFP asking companies to submit proposals to manufacture goods or supply services on a contract basis, the application process is complex and highly detailed. Likewise, there is an equally specific way through which the winning bid is selected. This selection process is defined by the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) system, a group of uniform policies and procedures that guide the acquisition of goods and/or services by all executive agencies. 

Found in Title 48 of the Code of Federal Regulations, FAR consists of 37 chapters, each hundreds, if not thousands, of pages long. (Chapter 1, which applies to all government agencies and covers cost accounting standards, is more than 2,000 pages long.) Fortunately, familiarity with the entire document is rarely necessary. Part 15 of FAR that deals with the selection process, although other sections do come into play in rare circumstances.

Why is understanding the selection process important? Simply put, knowing what steps the agency will take in making a decision will help you organize and write your proposal. Most would-be contractors know that considering “What does the buyer want?”, “What are their critical needs”” and “How does this potential customer define value?” will benefit them, but understanding the steps through which their proposal will be vetted before a final decision is made is equally important. 

After the government receives the proposals and the deadline passes, pricing is stripped from each submission. The bids are then processed through three distinct steps as outlined in FAR:

  1. The agency convenes a Source Selection Evaluation Board (SSEB). Typically, the SSEB is made up of a small group or team of individuals, but it may also be a single person depending on the size and circumstances of the agency. The SSEB evaluates each proposal (again, without pricing information) separately. Each submission is evaluated for general strengths and weaknesses; any pluses or minuses that are particularly significant are identified and highlighted. 
  2. A Source Selection Advisory Council (SSAC) is chosen. Its function is to take the information the SSEB has given them, bring in the pricing information, and provide the ultimate decision maker, the Source Selection Authority (SSA), with a recommendation as to which contractor to choose.
  3. An SSA’s sole responsibility is to select the winning bid. While the SSAC’s recommendation is carefully considered, the SSA is not required to go with its recommendation.

Most often, however, the SSA will agree with the SSAC’s recommendation and make the award in that applicant’s favor. Occasionally, however, the SSA will either send the SSAC back to the table to provide more justification and back-up information on their choice or opt to go in an entirely different direction—in which case, they take full responsibility for the decision.

When an SSA deviates from the typical federal source selection process, there are inherent risks. This is why it will be important for the ultimate decision maker to be able to clearly articulate their reasoning for going against the advice of the SSAC. For example, if there is a protest over the award, the SSA will need to justify and explain its actions thoroughly. If they can show that their decision clearly provides the government with added value, as long as it doesn’t contradict the rationale given in the RFP, the GAO will side with the SSA. 

In addition to understanding the source selection process, it’s also important for would-be contractors to know who is likely to be involved in the information-gathering, evaluation and decision-making process. Very rarely, the customer will disclose who these people will be, but far more likely, it is up to those submitting to try to discern the likely players. Look for contractors who have had a close working relationship with the agency in the past. Examine the historical patterns in previous procurements. See if you can determine which agency position has typically been the SSA in the process. Along with your primary research, this sort of information can guide your assumptions and help you write your proposal more effectively.

Our best advice is to understand the process, know your customer, and write your proposal accordingly. Having as much information as possible on the decision-making process will be an important factor in winning the award.