Many factors go into a decision of whether to protest after a contractor finds out it was not successful in winning an order or contract:
- Did the agency make a mistake?
- How strong is my evidence?
- Did the mistake affect the award decision?
- How much will a protest cost?
- Will a protest affect my relationship with the agency?
- If I win the protest, what remedy will the General Accountability Office (“GAO”) recommend?
For a contractor to make a reasoned decision on whether to protest, including a schedule contractor competing for commercial items sales, the contractor has to have some measure on the likelihood of success of a protest. Recent data and analysis provides valuable context on GAO protest decisions that will assist contractors in making this important decision. An annual report by the GAO, GAO Bid Protest Overview, GAO-13-404SP, Feb 20, 2013, authored by Ralph White, Managing Associate General Counsel, provides useful information on the results of bid protests over the past five years. An article written by Professor Dan Gordon, Associate Dean for Government Procurement Law Studies at The George Washington University Law School, digs a little deeper into GAO’s statistics, and looks at the number of protestors that actually win the contract after protesting.
According to GAO’s Bid Protest Overview, GAO closed 2,495 bid protest cases in 2012, issuing a decision in 570 cases, or approximately 23% of the closed cases. Of those cases that go to a decision, GAO sustained 106 protests, or approximately 18.6% of the 570 decisions. “Sustained” means the GAO agreed with the protestor that the government had made a material error in the procurement, and GAO recommended that the government take action to address its error.
GAO also calculated the success rate of protests, defined by GAO as when the protestor obtains “some form of relief from the agency, as reported to GAO, either as a result of voluntary agency corrective action or our Office sustaining the protest.” By this measure, protestors achieved success in 42% of the closed protests for that year. The 2012 success rate was representative of previous years, which ranged from 42% to 45% from 2008 to 2011. In short, protestors have done fairly well over the past five years according to the GAO’s view of success, achieving either a sustained protest or voluntary corrective action in at least 42% of the cases.
In his article, Bid Protests: The Costs Are Real, But the Benefits Outweigh Them, which will appear in the Spring 2013 issue of the Public Contract Law Journal, Professor Gordon digs a little deeper into GAO’s statistics, analyzing, among other issues, the percentage of protestors that received award of the contested contract after the protest. Reviewing the protests in 2010 that were sustained, Professor Gordon was able to determine the final results in 40 cases:
- nine contracts awarded to the protester;
- 18 contracts awarded to an offeror other than the protester;
- one case where the GAO granted the specific relief (other than contract award) requested by protestor;
- three procurements cancelled; and
- nine cases where the agency did not take corrective action.
Thus, of 27 cases that ended in the award of a contract, the protestor received the contract in nine cases, or one-third of the awards. In another case, the GAO recommended, and the government provided, the relief the protestor requested. Thus, in 25% of the 40 known results, the protestor received the final result it sought – nine contract awards and a tenth case where the protestor received the relief it sought. In addition, using a broader definition of “success,” protestors received award of the contract in nine of the 31 cases where the government took corrective action of some type (or 29% of the cases).
Professor Gordon did not attempt to extrapolate his findings based on known cases to the bulk of protests where results were not known. Others have attempted an extrapolation, at least one unsuccessfully and reaching inaccurate results. See Miller, Protests rarely result in U.S. contract reversals,study shows, Washington Post, March 11, 2013, available at http://goo.gl/iSb2o (concluding that less than one percent of protests filed in 2010 resulted in award to the contractor). A reasonable extrapolation of Professor Gordon’s analysis demonstrates that protestors have been successful even by Professor Gordon’s measure. See Papson, Carey and Meier, FEATURE COMMENT: The Odds Of Winning A Contract After Protesting Are Higher Than You Think, The Government Contractor, Vol 55, No. 16 (April 24, 2013). Applying the 29% success rate of award after corrective action from Professor Gordon’s data to the total number of protests in 2010, protestors won award of the contract after 12.2% of the total protests filed in 2010 (extrapolated). In light of such factors as the strength of the protest, the level of competition for the final award, and that the government deemed another offer to be the winner in the first instance, a success rate of approximately one in eight seems reasonable.
So, what is the takeaway from all of these numbers. By any measure, protests are successful. If the measure of success is ensuring that all offerors had a fair chance of award (my personal view), GAO statistics demonstrate that protests resulted in corrective action – specifically intended to make sure the rules of the procurement are fair and legal – at least 42% of the time in the last five years. By Professor Gordon’s more narrow measure – whether the protest resulted in the protestor obtaining the contract – more than 12% of protestors achieved success in 2010. Keep in mind that both of these results are based on all of the protests filed during the respective periods – some terrible, some very strong. With experience, or the assistance of an experienced protest lawyer, these numbers provide a useful benchmark for analyzing the likelihood of success of a specific protest evaluated on the merits.