Should contractors keep the right to respond to past-performance reviews?

Steve Kelman considers a proposal to disallow contractor responses to past-performance reviews.

There’s some buzz around a provision in the newly introduced Comprehensive Contingency Contracting Reform Act that would eliminate the ability established in the Federal Acquisition Regulation for a contractor unhappy with their past-performance evaluation to enter their own version of events in the file and to appeal the original past-performance evaluation to one level higher in the organization from where the original evaluation was done.

Matthew Weigelt wrote about the provision recently on, with a moderately incendiary headline saying the provision would “stifle” contractor responses to past-performance reports. Matthew’s article was a top-five read and emailed article on the FCW site, so the issue is attracting attention.

With a small tweak, this could actually be a really good change. But the tweak is necessary, and I hope the bill’s authors will make it.

The big problem with the current FAR language is that it allows a contractor to appeal a past-performance rating one level above where it was made. In my view, this appeal right has been devastating for the honesty of past-performance ratings, and therefore for the ability of past-performance to be a differentiator in contract awards. For past-performance to work in choosing contractors, the government needs to be able to observe differentiation between better performers, who should be rewarded with new contracts, and poorer ones, who shouldn’t.

The serious shortcomings in the government’s past-performance rating system in turn is really too bad, because judgments, formal and informal, of the past performance of those with whom we do business are an absolutely crucial part of the ability of a market system to work in improving results. If we like the haircut a barber gave us, we go back, and if we didn’t, we don’t – this really provides an incentive for barbers to do a good job.

I was the person, as OFPP administrator, who authorized the current FAR language when the past-performance evaluation system began in the ‘90s. I was concerned at the time that this appeal provision was a mistake, and I believe that subsequent results have confirmed my worries. Contracting officers believe that a bad rating is an invitation to spend countless hours having to defend their judgments, and the easy response, especially with staff shortages and not enough time, is simply to go light on bad comments.

So as the person responsible for the original language, I vote for its repeal.

However, the bill’s provisions go a bit too far. There is no reason to eliminate the ability of the contractor to give their version of events and have it put in the contract file. That just seems like elementary fairness, so others using the past-performance report get to see a different version of what happened, if there is one. I think that at least enlightened elements in the contractor community could support elimination of the dysfunctional appeal process, which undermines the ability of the past-performance system to work at all. But elimination of even the right to comment is sure to arouse the ire of all contractors, as Weigelt’s article seems to show.

Can the bill authors tweak their language so it can help create a real improvement in the government’s past-performance rating system?