GAO to offer dispute resolution for protests

HERSHEY Pa. - The General Accounting Office plans to tell agencies this month that it will allow them to request alternative dispute resolution services to avoid involvement in lengthy protest procedures.

Ronald Berger associate general counsel for procurement law at GAO said at the Information Resources Management Conference here last week that the agency has taken a series of steps in the past month to reduce the time needed for protest resolution.

GAO became the primary forum for vendor protests on Aug. 8 with the dissolution of the General Services Administration's Board of Contract Appeals as a protest venue once the Information Technology Management Reform Act came into force.

"GAO is prepared to offer alternative dispute resolution " Berger told attendees of the GSA-sponsored conference. "If an agency smells a protest coming on it can request GAO intervention - in effect an attorney to provide a nonbinding opinion.

"Don't be afraid to ask for this if you want to make the process move along faster " Berger said.Berger added that the agency has also cut the time allowed to lapse in between a contract award or debriefing and the filing of a protest from 14 to 10 calendar days.

The alternative dispute resolution announcement was applauded by federal and industry observers. Frank McDonough deputy associate administrator for intergovernmental solutions at GSA said GSA procurement policy officials have long been supporters of the concept.

"We've always felt that alternative dispute resolution ought to be used before agencies go to a formal protest " McDonough said. "Once you go formal a lot of opportunities are lost."

Larry Allen executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement said he also welcomed the announcement. "Where alternative dispute resolution has been tried in the past it's been shown to be successful " he said.

Berger said GAO attorneys will use other means to attempt to arrive at a speedy resolution to protests. For example they will contact parties involved in a protest and attempt to strike agreements to eliminate issues from protests that the attorneys deem unlikely to be sustained.

Such deals would allow the parties to focus on fewer issues and decrease the time needed for agency responses and GAO rulings he said.

In addition GAO attorneys will also identify simpler cases and attempt to get involved parties to agree to accelerated proceedings. Berger said these agreements could allow protests normally requiring more than 100 days to settle to be resolved in as few as 30.

"This will give us more time to focus on the big cases " he said.

Allen said the changes at GAO might help the agency deal with an expected increase in protests following the demise of GSBCA. But he also expressed some doubt that they would substantially affect the success of most procurements.

"I question how much benefit we will get from a change like this " he said. "Most of the problems with protests have already been addressed. And this could reduce the amount of time vendors have to file a legitimate complaint.

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