Unraveling the mysteries of the federal procurement operations is a matter of counting off what happens and when.

Ed Haenke, director of procurement for the Marshall Space Flight Center, outlined what occurs when NASA requests proposals for a job.1. Request for Proposals

The request for proposal is a call for ideas. It tells NASA what the contractor proposes to build, where and for how much, Haenke said Friday. Most aspects can be negotiated as long as the product meets the agency's needs.

"In a negotiated process, generally I'd use a functional specification - I want to buy something that does this," said Haenke. In the case of a truck, "It can be a six-wheel truck or a four-wheel truck" but must be able to haul something.

2. Evaluating the proposals

Once the proposals are in, evaluators look for four factors.

- Mission suitability - how well the proposal meets the government's needs.

- Relative experience and past performance of the contractor.

- Other factors such as sub-contracting plans, labor relations and equal employment opportunity compliance.

- Cost.

Each of the four carries various weight and is graded. NASA then forms a competitive range, Haenke said. "That means we would eliminate those that could not stay in" under the limits.

3. Oral and written discussion

This stage includes talking with the remaining contractors to get answers or clarify points. It also may include visits to contractors' facilities.

4. Last and Final Proposal

This is the final statement of the contractor about what it can do and includes any changes or rethinking done on the job.

5. Final assessment

Every aspect of each proposal is evaluated. Positions, strengths and anything else can change in the last competitive analysis. The Source Evaluation Board chairman will present an evaluation of each proposal to a designated official who then selects which company wins.

"If you and I were going out to have a house built, we'd have a set of blueprints, a set of plans" and contractors would "bid to satisfy those plans and specifications.

"But the negotiated process where we use source evaluation procedures is, more complex, painstaking and time consuming," said Haenke.

6. Winner selected

From here, the winning contractor goes through the process of getting even more down to specifics.

The losers, in turn, can request a debriefing in which constructive criticism is offered on how the bid could have been stronger or more in line with the government needs.

If not satisfied with the debriefing, Haenke said the contractor can protest the decision to the contracting office, NASA or General Accounting Office. But the agency's decisions consistently have been upheld. "Our record's pretty darn good in having the protest rejected."