Just before Christmas we had sight of the judgment in the recent case of MLS (Overseas) Limited v The Secretary of State for Defence. The case highlights how an apparently simple error in drafting an evaluation methodology can lead to significant consequences for the progress of the procurement. It also shows how wide the gap can be between what the contracting authority thinks it has communicated in the methodology and what a bidder's actual understanding of that methodology may be on reading it.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) ran a procurement for a contract valued at around ?350 million for global port maritime and other logistical support services for the Royal Navy. Given the sector the procurement was regulated by the Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations 2011 as amended. However the principles on which the case turned apply equally to procurements regulated by the Public Contracts Regulations 2015.
In particular in running the procurement the MoD was under a duty to conduct the competition in a manner which respected the EC Treaty principles of transparency non-discrimination and equal treatment.
The claimant who was also the incumbent provider emerged from the evaluation as the most economically advantageous tender according to the stated award criteria. However on one particular question (question 6.3) relating to ensuring safe working cultures not only within the tenderer's own organisation but also down the supply chain the claimant's response was judged to be inadequate as it did not fully address how the tenderer would pass on health and safety obligations to its own contractors. Question 6.3 was a 'pass/fail' question; both evaluators and a further moderator marked the response as a fail.
On this basis following requests by MoD for the claimant to clarify its response and a further moderation meeting MoD marked the claimant's tender as uncompliant and excluded it.
The claimant commenced the claim prior to the award of the contract to the second-placed bidder which suspended the award process pending legal proceedings.
The claimant argued (among other things) that the ITT did not state or at least was ambiguous as to the consequence of a fail score in respect of Question 6.3. This meant argued the claimant that the MoD was not entitled automatically to reject its tender for a single fail score. In rejecting its tender the MoD acted unlawfully in breach of its obligations of transparency and equal treatment.
The MoD argued in return that the evaluators and moderator were entitled to conclude that the claimant?s tender failed to meet the minimum requirements specified in the evaluation criteria for achieving a pass score for Question 6.3.
The MoD accepted that due to an administrative error the MoD had omitted to include an express statement in the ITT that the consequence of a fail score would be rejection of the tender However said the MoD it would have been apparent to a reasonably well-informed and normally diligent tenderer from the ITT that a fail score for Question 6.3 would lead to automatic or discretionary rejection of the tender.
The section of the ITT on technical requirements contained an example technical evaluation table which showed the weighting and scores available up to a possible score of 100% for the following questions:
- Question 1 - Capability;
- Question 2 - Customer Relationship;
- Question 3 - Supply Chain Management;
- Question 4 - Value for Money; and
- Question 5 - Insurance
It was clearly stated that failure to meet a minimum standard of good confidence for any of these five questions would result in rejection of the tender.
Significantly though the technical evaluation for Question 6 Safety and Quality Management (of which question 6.3 was obviously a part) was not included here. The methodology for this question was clearly stated to be a simple pass/fail judgment but it was not made clear that a fail result here would amount to a judgment that the response fell below 'good confidence' level and would consequently be non-compliant leading to the rejection of the tender.
The question before the court was whether the failure to expressly state that a fail result on question 6.3 would result in exclusion was a transparency breach by the MoD (as the claimant argued)?
Or on the other hand as MoD argued was it a reasonable expectation that tenderers looking at the ITT should have 'put two and two together' and realised that exclusion would be logical consequence of a failure on question 6.3?
The judge considered some of the leading cases in this area in particular the SIAC and Healthcare at Home cases. These established the principle that the award criteria must be formulated in such a way as to allow all reasonably well informed and normally diligent tenderers (RWIND tenderers) to interpret them in the same way.
The judge noted that this was an objective test: the question was not whether it had been proved that all actual or potential tenderers had in fact interpreted the criteria in the same way but whether the court considered that the criteria were sufficiently clear to permit uniform interpretation by all RWIND tenderers.
The judge also looked at the more recent Nuclear Decommissioning Authority case where the transparency obligation was considered in the context of the contracting authority's obligation to adhere to a procurement process/rules that it has previously stated. In that case the judge said this:
"The principles of equal treatment non-discrimination and transparency require a contracting authority that has adopted a decision-making procedure for assessing bids to comply with it once it has begun to do so. A different way of expressing the same principle is to state that a contracting authority that has set rules for that procedure must follow them applying those rules in the same way to the different bidders. Changing the decision-making procedure during the process of assessment risks arbitrariness and favouritism a risk that it is the purpose of such requirements to avoid"
The judge concluded that the MoD had indeed breached the obligation to act transparently.
The ITT did not indicate that a pass score for each part of Question 6 was a minimum standard that had to be met to make the tender technically compliant.
The judge disagreed with the MoD's argument that a RWIND tenderer should have understood that a fail score for Question 6.3 would be treated as an assessment of lower than good confidence and lead to automatic rejection of the bid. The judge said conversely that the RWIND tenderer would assume that there would be a difference in treatment between Questions 1 to 5 and Question 6 because the ITT identified different categories of assessment for such responses. The ITT could have stipulated that a pass would equate to good confidence but did not do so.
The case highlights to contracting authorities the risks of ambiguity in the evaluation methodology and need for the evaluation criteria to make it absolutely and explicitly clear where a 'fail' result will lead to rejection of the bid.
Note that this is the case not only in relation to the ITT stage (as in this case) but also during the selection phase. Indeed Cabinet Office guidance explicitly states that SQ evaluation methodologies must make candidates expressly aware of any SQ questions where a 'fail' result will lead to disqualification on that ground alone. You can read the full judgment in the case here.