A look at 30 years of quality service in federal procurement.

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and later become a United States senator and presidential candidate, had an answer for those who asked if he was afraid when he went to space. He said that he had complete faith in his equipment and staff, total confidence in the technology and a sense of reassurance with his training. But as he was sitting in his Mercury capsule on top of the launch pad and the countdown got to 10... 9… 8… he said he suddenly realized that he was sitting on top of a government project that had been awarded to the lowest bidder.

Given the reality of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle accidents, that story is not so funny anymore. The wisdom of lowly bid government contracts is no laughing matter, either. In the 1990s, government procurement was modernized and the old paradigm of “lowest bidder” was replaced by new tenets of “performance-based contracting,” “best value” and “past performance.” But long before quality and value became the norm in federal procurement, professionals in surveying, mapping, architecture and engineering were competing for contracts based on competence and qualifications, rather than price.

QBS History

The process for selecting these design professionals was codified into federal law in 1973 with the enactment of the “Brooks Act” named for the legislation’s author, then-Representative Jack Brooks (D-TX). Originally enacted as Public Law 92-582, it was signed by President Nixon on Oct. 28, 1973. The law has been amended once, in 1988, when a new definition of services it covers was enacted, specifically including surveying and mapping.

As noted below, the history of quality in the procurement of these services dated to the days of the Civil War. Although the process commonly known today as “QBS” or qualifications-based selection has been used for almost 150 years, when the Comptroller General of the United States ruled that the statutory basis for awarding A/E contracts without price was insufficient, Rep. Brooks moved his QBS legislation through Congress in 1972.

QBS requires federal agencies “to negotiate contracts for architectural and engineering services on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualification” and “to negotiate a contract with the highest qualified firm for architectural and engineering services at compensation which the agency head determines is fair and reasonable to the Government.” The use of the QBS procedure directs the focus of procurement activity where it should be, on the quality of the surveying and mapping services specifically suited to a given contract. All competitors must submit their qualifications to the procuring agency; the agency assesses the relative expertise of the competing firms, and the one most qualified firm is selected for negotiation for the particular procurement.

Such a process produces more cost-effective A/E/S/M mapping than can be achieved under other procedures. It is a highly competitive process and is defined as a competitive procedure under the Competition in Contracting Act in 41 U.S.C. 259(b). Today, QBS laws are also in place in more than 40 states, affecting state agency procurement, and in some cases, local government as well. Most of these laws specifically mention surveying.

The law is implemented in section 36.601 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). FAR section 36.601-4(a)(4) clarifies the QBS law’s application to surveying and mapping and these services inclusion in the broader “architectural and engineering services”:

Contracting officers should consider the following services to be “architect-engineer services” subject to the procedures of this subpart: Professional surveying and mapping services of an architectural or engineering nature. Surveying is considered to be an architectural and engineering service and shall be procured pursuant to 36.601 from registered surveyors or architects or engineers. Mapping associated with the research, planning, development, design, construction or alteration of real property is considered to be an architectural or engineering service and is to be procured pursuant to 36.601.

In December 2002, the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council took up a proposal to revise and modernize the provision affecting surveying and mapping in order to bring the definition up to date with state-of-the-art geospatial practice and technology. A new regulation is expected to be made public at the time this article is being written.

Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of surveying and mapping in the Brooks Act is provided by the Engineer FAR Supplement (EFARS), promulgated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which can be found in section 36.601-4 on the Web at www.hq. usace.army.mil/cepr/efars/part36.pdf.

A high quality survey or map will stand the test of time and ensure that the government can proceed with its project based on complete and precise groundwork.


Why should architecture, engineering, surveying and mapping be treated any differently than other products or services that government agencies buy from the private sector? The answer is more than 100 years old and provides the foundation for the inclusion of surveying in the QBS statute.

The basis for present statutory authority for procurement of personal and professional services, such as surveying and mapping, can be traced back to an 1861 Appropriations Act. This Act provided for the appropriation of funds for various purposes, including the compensation of civilian surveyors. Section 10 directed that advertising for proposals “except for personal services” make all contract for supplies or services. A year later, the attorney general of the United States ruled that a contract for surveying was a contract for personal services within the meaning of the Act and, therefore, could be made without advertisement and competitive bidding. In reaching his decision, the attorney general observed:

"...although this policy (price competition) is certainly desirable in all cases, there are yet some to which it cannot well be applied. Such are contracts for services, which require special skill and experience... In all contracts for services, which presuppose trained skill and experience, the public officer who employs the service must be allowed to exercise a judicious discrimination, and to select such as, in his judgment, possesses the required qualifications.

Of this class are contracts for surveying the public lands. The service to be performed requires not only fidelity and integrity, but also a certain kind of skill and knowledge, and the officer whose duty it is to let the contract is bound to know that the person he employs possesses these qualifications. It is not half so important to have the work done cheaply as to have it done well, and the price to be paid for it, whilst it should be but fair and reasonable, ought to be far from controlling consideration."

Just as a poorly designed dam can burst, subjecting the government to huge claims, so too can a poorly planned or executed survey or map unleash a flood of problems, creating an impediment to the expeditious completion of a government project, causing substantial loss of time and money, and jeopardizing the public safety. Like a well-made dam, a high quality survey or map will stand the test of time and will ensure that the government can proceed with its mission, design, construction or resource planning project based on complete and precise groundwork. In addition to the direct cost of the contract, the government must be concerned about such consequent indirect costs as physical destruction of property or clouded claims that could result from poor quality workmanship. The same is true of surveying and mapping that is not directly related to a design, construction or resource project. Hundreds of decisions and assumptions are based on surveying or mapping data in a geographic information system (GIS). And mapping is used in a plethora of other federal programs that, while not traditionally considered architect-engineer activities, nonetheless beg the benefit of selection of contractors based on competence and qualifications.

Traditionally, government procurement procedures properly have emphasized awarding contracts to the lowest bidder or using price as a dominant factor. For many goods that government purchases, such as paper, office equipment, desks, even construction services, this process serves the government and the taxpayer well. Specifications can be written, products can be inspected and tested, and safeguards can be built in to assure saving money. Sometimes, however, agencies mistakenly assume professional surveying and mapping services fall into this category. Unfortunately, the assumption ignores the increase in costs to administer the preparation of detailed scopes of work and bid specifications, evaluate numerous bids and remedy serious consequences of unprofessional surveying and mapping. Quality, therefore, should always be the primary focus in the competition for surveying and mapping procurements. Only after high quality performance is ensured should the focus turn to the contract price.

The government benefits from the fiduciary obligation a professional surveyor or photogrammetrist has to his or her client. Emphasis on the quality of the work establishes a relationship of cooperation and trust, whereas price competition pits honest professionals against competitors who are willing to cut corners or deliver substandard services to bid low. When the low bid is the primary selection criterion, the interests of unscrupulous or inexperienced contractors are advanced over the interests of the public. The lowly bid survey or map often is inaccurate or incomplete and can result in the government paying far more, or contracting with another surveyor or mapping professional to complete the project begun by the low bidder who went bankrupt trying to meet an unreasonably low contract price. Rather than engage in an adversary relationship, which is promoted in competitive bidding procedures, the surveying and mapping professional and the government should negotiate the work and work as a team.

The government must be mindful of the indirect or hidden costs, such as legal fees, court expenses and insurance claims that it can incur from boundary, trespassing and other property disputes that outdated or erroneous surveys and maps can cause. By negotiating contracts with private surveying and mapping professionals, the government can save in-house costs and increase survey outputs significantly. Government inspection or quality control of a surveying or mapping project to monitor contract compliance is much more difficult than inspection of manufactured products or other professional services. The survey or map’s geographic scope is often immense, and the only effective way the government can check for accuracy is to retrace the entire survey or map. Even a trained eye cannot find a survey or map’s critical flaws that have the potential to threaten the public’s safety and pocketbook in future years.

By negotiating contracts with private surveyors, the government can save in-house costs and increase survey outputs significantly.
Unlike materials, a survey or map cannot be sampled before and thoroughly tested after production. The client or owner is totally dependent upon the integrity of the surveyor or mapper; you might say he is at his mercy, for even a bad survey plan can look good. It often takes months or years before errors and problems are discovered.

Surveys and maps are tied to existing control points on the ground, the location and condition of which are uncertain until the surveying and mapping is performed. Legal descriptions of boundaries may or may not indicate physical monuments. These physical monuments may or may not be still in existence on the ground. If they do exist, they may or may not be the original monuments, and they may or may not fit other physical evidence in the area. One cannot price the unknown.

Surveys and maps are usually dependent on other exiting surveys and recorded documents. The evaluation of such surveys or documents is a matter of judgment that cannot be made until the surveyor or mapping professional has researched the project, both in the field and in the repository of deeds and other records. He may find that as the result of his new work, an existing survey may have to be rerun to achieve the accuracy required by the client, even though the records of the existing survey indicated otherwise beforehand. He may find deeds or other documents that will affect the interpretation of the client’s land description. These conditions may not be known, nor even suspected, until the survey is substantially started.

Surveying and mapping work is also weather-dependent. Rain, wind and other inclement conditions can delay or prolong a survey for indefinite periods of time. Aerial photography for photogrammetry is even more susceptible to the vagaries of the weather. Cloud cover, sun angle and the canopy of vegetation all must meet the client’s requirements for photography to be taken. Precise leveling is extremely sensitive to the vagaries of weather. Fog affects sighting lengths. Wind affects instrumentation and measurement. Adequate GPS signals are not always available. Delays cost money. The decision to stop or delay the operation should be based on a determination that the quality of the result will suffer, rather than on a profit-loss motive.

The accuracy of a survey depends upon the manner and the conditions under which the work is performed, not just on the accuracy of closures. A survey could close within specified tolerances, but the work could be unacceptable because of the methods used.

By requesting bids, a client assumes the responsibility for defining the scope of the services required, and thus, does not take any advantage of the knowledge and background of qualified professionals in surveying and mapping engaged in providing such services. All too few administrators and even engineers are knowledgeable in surveying and mapping, and their inadequacy in this regard is apparent in their requests for bids. The knowledgeable person is aware of the indeterminate nature of surveying and mapping. The reputable surveyor and mapping professional, if he is to bid, must either attempt to anticipate the many possible problems, determine which problems he feels will occur, and bid accordingly or he must bid so high that he can include every possible condition (in which case he undoubtedly will not be the successful bidder). If an honest attempt is made and unforeseen conditions occur, the surveyor faces the decision to adhere to the specifications, thereby producing an inferior product (which he cannot ethically do) or perform the work to the best of his ability, thereby operating at a loss. Either way, the client is the ultimate loser.

Numerous cases can be cited to prove that the lowest bid does not necessarily result in the lowest overall cost. The old cry, “Bid as low as you dare, but make your money on the extras” is inevitable and the resulting relationship between the government client and the surveyor and mapper assumes an arm’s length status that is not only non-conducive to the completion of professional assignments, but in fact effectively eliminates any exercise of professional judgment on the part of the surveyor.

British philosopher John Ruskin (1819 - 1900) made the case for QBS more than a century ago in his essay titled “The Law of Business.” He wrote:

“There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey. It is unwise to pay too much, but it is also unwise to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money; that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything because the thing you bought is incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot ... It can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”