Competition for government contracts is becoming more cutthroat as federal spending shrinks by billions of dollars, with big companies swooping in on smaller ones and bid protests on the rise.
Routine contracts that in years past would have attracted just a handful of companies have become high-stakes bidding wars. Contractors are forced to make more aggressive offers, with slimmer margins. And industry officials say the gentleman’s agreement that often prevented losing companies from filing bid protests against their rivals has given way to a more desperate mentality.
The number of losing companies’ protests to the Government Accountability Office, which handles the vast majority of bid protests, has increased from 1,352 in 2003 to 2,429 last year. While that is a fraction of the total number of contracts awarded annually — less than 1 percent, by one estimate — the cases often show how tight the market has gotten and the extreme measures companies will take to win.
“Budgets are going down, which means competition for what contracts remain has increased tremendously,” said Jaime Gracia, president of Seville Government Consulting, which helps contractors win bids. Companies “are making strategic decisions about protesting because they have to. A lot of companies can’t afford to lose that contract.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spending on contracting soared. Fueled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it peaked in 2008 at about $541 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget. But as the budget cuts known as sequestration went into effect, the figure dropped to $461 billion last year, and many predict it will continue to fall.