Procurement

Why GAO nixed the Census mobile deal

smartphones 

The Census Bureau made several key slipups in its decision to award a $283 million mobile device contract for the 2020 population count, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a detailed account of its bid protest decision, GAO said that the bureau's conduct of discussions was improper and unequal, the bureau did not adequately document its decision and the ultimate award was possibly biased.

Census selected CDW-G over AT&T as the mobile device provider for its key decennial device-as-a-service contract, which would provide canvassers with mobile devices and related services to conduct the enumeration for the 2020 census.

AT&T protested the award, and last month GAO sustained the protest. In its decision, GAO concluded there was a "reasonable possibility that the protester [AT&T] was prejudiced by the agency's errors" in the awarding of the contract.

CDW-G's proposal came with a $283-plus million price tag; AT&T's was $191-plus million. The specific differences in the contracts have been redacted.

One point AT&T contended was that the bureau was misleading and unequal in its contract evaluation.

According to the protest, CDW-G was specifically asked in its technical exchange how the company planned to ensure prenegotiated rates with cellular carriers were unbiased. However, AT&T was never asked about bias in its technical exchange.

"To the extent the agency was concerned with the potential bias in each offeror's approach, and raised bias with CDWG, it was obligated to similarly raise this concept with AT&T," wrote GAO General Counsel Susan A. Poling. "Here, the record as a whole demonstrates the impropriety in the conduct of discussions."

Additionally, GAO found that the bureau, in its award selection, referenced a risk on the part of AT&T, as well as CDW-G's ability to outperform technical specifications and conduct a technology refresh, that were inadequately documented by the bureau during its solicitation and evaluation of proposals.

In its decision, GAO noted that while "we cannot say with certainty whether AT&T might have addressed the agency's concern about bias in carrier selection" or whether AT&T's bid represented the better value, the watchdog recommended reopening the bidding.

Census is not bound to accept GAO's decision.

At its National Advisory Committee meeting Nov. 2, Assistant Director of Decennial Census Programs Directorate Al Fontenot said the bureau is still examining its options, including accepting GAO's ruling and rebidding the contract, or rejecting it and risking the possibility of a lawsuit from AT&T in the Court of Federal Claims.

In the event the bureau cannot resolve the decision in time to get the contracted devices for the 2018 end-to-end test, Fontenot said Census has a "contingency plan" in place to ensure it has devices available as a substitute, the details of which, he said, are "acquisition sensitive."

Census did not respond to FCW's request for comment.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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