Bidding in the News: Procurements, Protests, and Bid Bots

“I’m just resigned to the fact that this is how it’s going to be.” Those are the words of a GSA acquisition official regarding the growing number of bid protests the agency sees. She continued: “We on the Government side, we’ve given up hope. We plan more time for [protests] than anything else.”

With the number of bid protests up 60% from fiscal year 2008, it’s easy to wring our hands over the state of federal contracting. But how bad has the situation really gotten? It turns out that 60% figure doesn’t tell the whole story.

While the number of protests has risen, protests still affect less than 2% of procurements. Big, expensive awards are very likely to be protested—and are very high-profile. When companies fight for a multibillion dollar contract, we take note. We’re much less likely to notice the many mundane contracts that are awarded without issue every year.

Moreover, the Government has become significantly less likely to sustain the protests that are filed. Since fiscal year 2008, the percentage of successful protests has fallen from 21% to 13%.

That said, despite the decline in sustained protests, protestors are actually 3% more likely to get what they want. How? Sometimes, to avoid the hassle, an agency will simply give in, bypassing the Government Accountability Office review. Technically the protest is not sustained—but that doesn’t matter to the protestor.

Dealing with a protested award can be a major frustration. But it could be worse: you could be outbid by a bot. Of 70 bids on a recent federal cloud contract, the winner was a bot—a software application programmed to perform automated tasks over the Internet. The bot underbid all its competitors with just seconds to spare, leaving no time for competitors to react and thereby securing the award. The humans didn’t stand a chance.

(In an interesting twist, before the competition closed, the winning vendor had actually offered the bot to their competitors. No one took them up on the offer).

Bid bots are nothing new – they’ve been prevalent on eBay for years, “sniping” bids at the last second and frustrating human shoppers immensely. This may be the first time a GSA auction has seen major bot activity; after this success, it likely won’t be the last.

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