This is a guest post from Dave Moyer, part-time senior analyst for TAPE, LLC.
As a member of a group of adjunct professors for the Graduate School USA, we collectively develop abstracts of pertinent, current legislation for use by the group in multiple class presentations. We attempt to author papers that enlighten our students and occasionally will develop papers that are of use to entities working in the government arena.
The follow paper was developed by four of the financial management professors and contains information that would be of interest to government contractors. In my ongoing capacity as a senior analyst for TAPE, I condensed this information, which is available in the public domain, in an effort to make it a handy thumbnail of the latest NDAA.
On December 12, 2017, President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (Public Law 115-91). It contains many significant changes to DoD operations and organization, as well as some government-wide changes. Here are some of the important changes, starting with a new law with government-wide applicability:
Subtitle G of the NDAA is referred to as the Modernizing Government Technology Act. It establishes a Technology Modernization Fund and a Technology Modernization Board. The Act also authorizes any agency (not just DoD) to establish an information technology working capital fund (WCF) to improve, retire, or replace existing systems, and for any project, program, or activity related to IT modernization.
An interesting aspect of these WCFs will be their funding sources, and the length of availability of the funds. Agencies are given the authority to transfer other appropriations into the fund, and the WCFs may also receive discretionary appropriations. Thus, the WCFs won’t rely on sales to customers to earn revenue.
In addition, due to their nature, currently WCF balances are always available without fiscal year limitations (that is, no-year). This is no longer true, as these WCF balances will be available for only three years after the year in which funds are transferred in, or the appropriation is received from Congress. After three years, any unobligated balances revert to the general fund in Treasury.
Section 806 of the NDAA amends Title 41 of the US Code and applies to all federal agencies. The micro-purchase threshold increases from $3,000 to $10,000.
The following are some DoD-specific provisions to be aware of:
- Section 827: Directs a pilot program on recovering costs from contractors whose protests are denied by the Government Accountability Office.
- Section 831: Redefines Major Defense Acquisition Programs and Defense Business Systems.
- Section 832: Prohibits the use of lowest price technically acceptable source selection process for engineering and manufacturing development contracts for major defense acquisition programs.
- Sections 841-844: Numerous enhancements relating to the acquisition work force.
- Section 854: Pilot program for multiyear contracts up to 10 years in length.
- Section 905: Adds qualifications for appointment as the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and the Deputy CFO. Adds duties and powers to the Under Secretary’s position.
- Section 906: Redesignates Principal Deputy Under Secretaries of Defense as Deputy Under Secretaries of Defense.
- Section 910: Establishes a Chief Management Officer of the Department of Defense. This will be the number three ranking person in the department, below the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, but above the Under Secretaries.
- Section 921: Adds qualifications for appointment as the Assistant Secretary for Financial Management in each of the three military departments.
- Section 925: Moves background and security investigations from OPM to DoD.
- Section 1002: Adds a new chapter to Title 10 consolidating, codifying, and improving authorities and requirements relating to the audit of DoD financial statements. Among many other changes, the Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness (FIAR) plan is now called Financial Improvement and Audit Remediation (FIAR) plan.
- Section 1004: By mid-March 2018, DoD must submit a report to Congress ranking every DoD component/agency on their auditability.
- Section 1103: The temporary authority for DoD to offer Voluntary Separation Incentive Program payments up to $40,000 (rather than the old $25,000) will not expire on Sept 30, 2018. It is extended to Sept 30, 2021.
- Section 1648: Requires a report to Congress by May 1, 2018 on the termination of the dual-hat arrangement for the Commander of the United States Cyber Command.
- Section 2802: Operation and Maintenance (O&M) appropriations may be used for construction up to $2,000,000 (up from the previous $1,000,000). Also, the unspecified MILCON limit goes from $3,000,000 to $6,000,000.
- Section 2803: The Secretary of each component will adjust the $6,000,000 unspecified MILCON limit each fiscal year to reflect the local construction cost index, but the limit may not exceed $10,000,000.
- Section 2805: The Secretary of each component may use O&M funds to replace building damaged or destroyed by natural disasters or terrorism incidents, with a limit of $50,000,000 per fiscal year.
The Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) provides audit and financial advisory services to Department of Defense (DoD) and other federal entities responsible for acquisition and contract administration. They serve as dedicated stewards of taxpayer dollars to ensure that agencies get what they need at fair and reasonable prices.
In an audit, the DCAA aims to establish that your indirect rates are properly allocated. These include fringe benefits (costs related to employing your labor force), overhead (indirect costs of carrying out your contracts) and general and administrative costs (G&A) (the residual costs necessary to run a business, regardless of whether you have government contracts). (See this post for more details.)
Why does this matter? If these costs are not allowable, allocatable to one of the areas in the indirect cost matrix, they won’t count towards your reimbursement. You can’t claim them and use them to build up your rates. If you’ve spent $100,000 but only $50,000 is allowable, that other $50,00 is unrecovered in your rate schedule.
What I’m going to give you in this blog post is the most common things the DCAA looks for. I’m not necessarily going into all the details, rules or regulations. You always have to consult with a knowledgeable contracts person, accountant, or legal expert.
The first issue is consultants and consulting costs, where you need to get outside advice. There are many things that a consultant can do for you, but some of these are not allowable costs under the DCAA rules.
Let’s say I want to bill the government for an analyst at $100 an hour. From the government’s perspective the DCAA comes out and says a certain amount is salary, some are fringe benefits, some is overhead, some is general administrative, and finally the rest is profit. What goes into those buckets can only be allowable costs.
If you have unallowable costs, you may be forced to reduce your rates and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Of course their goal is to find as many unallowed costs as they can in order to save the government money.
Next there is compensation. We’ve got two areas there – executive compensation and incentive compensation. Executive compensation was capped in the Obama administration, so you need to look into those details. Incentive compensation is very stringently regulated. You can give business development and executive incentive compensation but you have to understand the basis on which you’re calculating and paying those incentives.
Again, I’m not a DCAA accountant; I’m just trying to guide you towards what questions to ask so you don’t get in trouble.
Then we have base labor costs (salaries), and while it seems logical that salaries are covered, you have to be careful because there are lots of things that go into salaries, such as bonuses and gift cards – are they allowable?
For example, at our company TAPE, when you get a “kudo letter” from a customer you get a gift card. That would be a labor charge under employee morale, but you have to work that out with your professional advisor. All of the aspects of how you pay your employees, including health insurance benefits, sick leave, etc., must be addressed.
As for legal costs, the ones that are associated with your projects in government work are allowable, but legal costs for organizational issues, e.g., issuing stock to members of your LLC or owners of your corporation, may not be allowed.
Employee morale is distinct from traditional benefits like life insurance – e.g., you buy soft drinks and put them in the fridge and anyone can take them. That may or may not be an allowable cost. It is an employee morale cost, but you must check that this cost is allowable.
These are some of the many things the DCAA will evaluate when they come out, so make sure you are ready for them!
We’ve been taking a look at new compromise language released about the creation of an online marketplace for DOD COTS purchases.
In this final post, we’ll look at some of the concerns people have about the program. The first is about data security. Another improvement over the original Section 801 language is the way the compromise bill deals with the treasure trove of data to which the portal providers will have access.
The previous Thornberry language precluded the online marketplace provider from selling or giving those data to third parties, but imposed no constraint on the provider’s use of those data for its own strategic purposes. Consequently, if a provider also were a seller, the provider could have used sales data from its competitors strategically to tailor its own offering and price its own products.
The new language precludes this by requiring the portal provider to agree “not to use for pricing, marketing, competitive, or other purposes, any information related to a products from a third-party supplier featured on the commercial e-commerce portal….” While this is improved language, it will not be easy for GSA to police this requirement. No doubt, the GSA OIG already is thinking through how it can help.
Notwithstanding the many improvements in the Section 846 language, the extensive breadth of the new program continues to concern many.
- First, the e-commerce portals will accommodate purchases up to the Simplified Acquisition Threshold. While more limited than the original Section 801 language, this still will direct a significant volume of DoD COTS purchasing into the hands of commercial entities.
- Second, while the language is focused on DoD purchasing, it expressly states the portal must be able to accommodate Government-wide purchasing. In other words, DoD is just the starting point. We can expect to see the program expanded to all agencies over time.
- Third, and perhaps most importantly, a companion provision of the NDAA provides that if a product previously has been purchased through a commercial items vehicle (e.g., a FAR Part 12 contract), it cannot be purchased via a more structured procurement (e.g., a FAR Part 15 contract) in the future without jumping through certain hoops.Indeed, the text expressly states that monies given to DoD may not be used to fund a FAR Part 15 procurement if the products being procured previously were purchased through a FAR Part 12 procurement. This new language appears to be designed to make it extremely difficult for DoD (and other agencies in the future) to circumvent the new portals by creating full and open commercial items competitions.
On the topic of commerciality, it is worth noting that, in addition to the e-commerce portal provisions of the compromise bill, the NDAA also includes a number of provisions designed to expand the Government’s use of commercial items purchasing vehicles and expand the number of products qualifying as commercial items.
These new provisions direct DoD to undertake a broad review of its current regulations, contracts, and subcontract flow-down terms to get rid of non-commercial clauses and provisions that have crept into DoD programs over the years. Indeed, the new language directs the Defense Acquisition University to develop new, meaningful training for COs to help them master commercial items acquisitions. This is a welcome development.
Finally, in addition to the positive changes for large businesses, small businesses also have something to cheer about in the compromise language. Section 846 makes clear purchases through the new e-commerce portals are deemed purchases from prime contractors such that the ordering agencies still get their small business purchasing credit.
The language also expressly states that agencies still can set aside their purchases for small businesses as they did before. (These provisions also suggest small business designation will be one of the several attributes portal providers will be required to display on their websites.)
In the end, the new language is a significant improvement over the original House proposal, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Section 846 directs OMB and GSA to fill in those blanks. And it provides for multiple reviews (including a detailed, phased-in GAO review) of how well OMB and GSA do their job.
Time will tell what the new program looks like. But we can be certain of one thing at the moment. The commercial items procurement landscape will change. It just may take longer than Rep. Thornberry had hoped.
As we continue our analysis of NDAA Section 846’s online marketplace provisions, let’s look at who can be a portal provider, and how they will work. We can see that the new language significantly reduces (but does not eliminate) the obstacles to becoming an official portal provider. Previously, Section 801 incorporated requirements only a handful of companies in the world (if that many) could have met.
Section 846 is less restrictive. It defines an acceptable portal as a “commercial solution providing for the purchase of commercial products aggregated, distributed, sold, or manufactured via an online portal.” It directs GSA to “consider” portals that are “widely used in the private sector” and that “have or can be configured to have” frequently updated supplier and product selections, as well as an assortment of product and supplier reviews.
As before, the language still expressly states the portal cannot be managed by the Government or designed for the primary use by the Government. Thus, neither GSA Advantage nor FedMall can satisfy the Section 846 requirements.
Unlike the House version of the bill, Section 846 does NOT state the portal providers will be selected without competition – a provision that greatly concerned not only industry, but many GSA officials as well. To the contrary, Section 846 states that current procurement laws will apply to the program unless explicitly exempted. This new language suggests GSA will have to develop some sort of competitive process to select the portal providers.
Whether that means GSA will conduct a full-and-open, head-to-head competition among potential portal providers or an everyone-who-meets-the-requirements-gets-in type competition (like GSA uses to award Schedule contracts) is unclear. In either case, the removal of the “non-competitive” language from Section 801 is a material improvement over the House bill.
As with Section 801, Section 846 vests significant responsibility in GSA to come up with a means to ensure products sold through the portals are screened to meet applicable statutory requirements. This likely refers to regimes like the Trade Agreements Act (“TAA”), the Buy American Act (“BAA”), environmental requirements, security requirements, and the like.
The language leaves it to GSA to figure out whether it will provide the necessary product data to the portal providers or will develop a mechanism for the providers to obtain those date on their own, presumably directly from the suppliers/manufacturers.
In either case, the continuing importance of product attribute data suggests neither suppliers nor portal providers should view the new procurement process as one devoid of obligations and/or risks.
On the flip side of the obtain-data-from-GSA coin, the new compromise language includes an expected submit-data-to-GSA obligation on the part of portal providers. Specifically, pursuant to Section 846, portal providers will have to collect and provide “order information” to GSA.
While GSA is left to determine what sort of “order information” it needs, chances are the resulting list will be similar to the data currently required through GSA’s TDR program.
Notwithstanding the Section 846 language directing OMB and GSA to ensure the awarded portals meet certain requirements, the compromise bill clearly reflects an effort on the part of Congress to minimize meddling in the structure of existing commercial ordering platforms.
In fact, the Conference Report accompanying the compromise bill encourages GSA “to resist the urge to make changes to the existing features, terms and conditions, and business models of available e-commerce portals, but rather demonstrate the government’s willingness to adapt the way it does business.”
This encouragement becomes a bit more pointed in the next sentence: “Pursuant to a diligent review of existing law and regulation, the conferees direct the Administrator to be judicious in requesting exceptions.”
Section 846 doesn’t have much to say about how agencies will purchase through the portal. Rather, it leaves most of that to GSA and OMB to figure out down the road. At this point, however, the language provides the authorized portals will be limited to COTS purchases. (The language actually uses the term “commercial products,” but strangely redefines the term to mean COTS items.)
Importantly, the language no longer includes the prior indecipherable provision that purchases would be deemed to meet all competitive requirements merely by virtue of there being more than one supplier selling the product.
Here again, the removal of the non-competitive language represents an improvement over the prior language. (The new language, however, provides no insight regarding the “protestability” of orders placed through the new portals, which currently is one of the only means industry has to hold agencies accountable for flawed purchasing decisions.)
Probably the most important change regarding purchasing relates to the prior Section 801 language that precluded ordering agencies from altering the marketplace provider’s standard terms and conditions.
That prohibition raised serious concerns over how fair a marketplace’s standard terms would be in a near-monopoly situation. The prohibition also raised significant questions about how the Government would deal with critical policy imperatives; things like data security, the Anti-Deficiency Act, socio-economic goals, country of origin rules, and the like.
The new language resolves at least some of those questions by providing that purchases through the portals “shall be made, to the maximum extent practicable, under the standard terms and conditions of the portal….”
This is not unlike the language currently used in FAR Part 12 procurements requiring that “contracts for the acquisition of commercial items shall, to the maximum extent practicable, include only those clauses … determined to be consistent with customary commercial practice.”
Since it will not be easy to define when a commercial term must be accepted by the Government or not, however, this likely will be an area for future litigation – just as it has been under FAR Part 12.
Stay tuned for a final look at this new language, and some concerns that remain.
There has been a lot of speculation about the future of commercial items purchasing within the Federal Government since Representative Mac Thornberry circulated his “Section 801” proposal to hand over the bulk of DoD COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf products) purchasing to one or two existing online commercial marketplaces. Industry groups mobilized, companies called their legislators, and the media contributed several stories describing the widespread criticism of the House NDAA proposal. To the surprise of many, however, the Senate seems to have heard industry’s concerns or at least some of them.
The compromise language that just emerged from the House/Senate Conference, designated Section 846 of the 2018 NDAA, reflects significant improvements from the original Thornberry bill. While the new compromise language still moves the Government significantly down the path toward the creation of an online marketplace, which almost certainly will change the way DoD (and likely other federal agencies) will purchase COTS items, the new approach resolved many of the most problematic provisions of the original House bill.
Unlike Section 801, which contemplated a quick, non-competitive award to an existing commercial marketplace provider to handle DoD COTS purchasing, Section 846 directs OMB and GSA to create a phased-in implementation plan and schedule to develop, evaluate, and implement the new online marketplaces (now called “e-commerce portals”) over the better part of three years.
The new language identifies a three-phase approach:
- Phase 1 gives OMB and GSA 90 days to develop an implementation plan and schedule.
- Phase 2 gives OMB and GSA a year after the plan/schedule is complete to conduct market research and to consult with federal agencies, potential e-commerce portal providers, and potential suppliers. Among other things, the “consultation” contemplated in this phase will focus on how current commercial portals function, the standard terms and conditions of such portals, and to what extent the currently-existing portals would have to be modified to meet Government needs.
This phase will also involve an assessment of data security, consideration of issues of concern to “non-traditional” Government contractors, and a review of the impact of fees charged by portal providers. On the issue of fees, the Conference Report accompanying the compromise language offered this warning to GSA: “The conferees are aware of various fee-based and other business-to-business arrangements to feature products offered by certain vendors in many commercial e-commerce portals. The conferees expect the Administrator to ensure that any contract or other agreement entered into for commercial e-commerce portals under this program preclude such business-to-business arrangements.”
- Phase 3 gives OMB and GSA two years (from the creation of its Phase 1 plan/schedule) to develop guidance for the use of the portal, “including protocols for oversight” of procurements through the new program.
As OMB and GSA progress through these three phases under the watchful eye of Congress and the GAO, their efforts will be guided by other provisions of Section 846 that differ significantly from Section 801.
In two follow-up posts, we’ll look more closely at how the new language handles who can be a portal provider and how the portals will work, and then we’ll discuss some concerns about this new program.
Way back when, there was an NDAA provision that said that Prime contractors had to provide a report of which subcontractor they actually used. This was necessary because small businesses were forever complaining that they would be on a Prime’s team but never got any business. The Prime won task orders, but they used other subs that were more favored – even though many times these other subs were not part of the original bid.
Then another NDAA provision was added which gave subs ability to go directly to the contracting officers and indicate that they were not getting paid (or not getting paid promptly). This was followed by still other NDAA provisions that served to strengthen the OSDBU – trying to give the OSDBUs more “teeth” in their enforcement of true equity in subcontractor relationships.
The specific intent here is to strengthen the contracting officer, OSDBU, and subcontractors’ ability to enforce equity in the subcontracting relationship. Truth be told, Primes are just not very good, or uniform, at treating subs as an actual “partner.”
Now comes SEC. 1821. GOOD FAITH IN SUBCONTRACTING, in this year’s NDAA:
‘‘(20) shall review all subcontracting plans required by paragraph (4) or (5) of section 8(d) to ensure that the plan provides maximum practicable opportunity for small business concerns to participate in the performance of the contract to which the plan applies.’’. (c) GOOD FAITH COMPLIANCE.—Not later than 270 days after the date of enactment of this title, the Administrator of the Small Business Administration shall provide examples of activities that would be considered a failure to make a good faith effort to comply with the requirements imposed on an entity (other than a small business concern as defined under section 3 of the Small Business Act.”
What this does is to ensure that the large business must report on actual usage of the small businesses that bid with it on the original subcontract. This will highlight using other small businesses, and not using the originals.
TRANSPARENCY, that’s the ticket to compliance.
This is a guest post by Jason Miller of Federal News Radio.
It’s been a year since the Office of Federal Procurement Policy released and accepted comments on its draft circular around category management.
With little-to-no activity on the draft circular over the past year, it seems OFPP is taking a less permanent route to further institutionalize this approach to buying.
Federal News Radio has learned OFPP sent a draft memo out for comment across the agencies earlier this summer, focusing on demand management and “best-in-class contracts.”
Several sources confirmed agencies submitted comments and OFPP is reviewing them.
Government sources familiar with the draft memo say OFPP wants agencies to set goals for using “best-in-class contracts,” and implement demand management by analyzing procurement data and making decisions on who to buy from and how to buy from those vendors.
One source said the draft memo would require agencies to negotiate with OFPP a percentage of work that would have to go through some of the currently 29 governmentwide, multiple-award contracts that have been designated “best-in-class.” These include several General Services Administration contracts, such as OASIS for professional services and Alliant for IT services, as well as the governmentwide acquisition contracts run by NASA and the National Institutes of Health.
“Each agency’s goal would be different because it would be based on what you buy and what you think you should be buying,” said the source, who requested anonymity in order to speak about the pre-decisional memo. “OFPP will look at what you bought in the past and determine what percentage should be bought through these contracts. You will then negotiate with OFPP, much the same way we do with small business goals.”
Multiple government sources say they have real concerns about the memo and have expressed them to OFPP.
Another government source familiar with the memo said they are not a fan of the “best-in-class” designation because it’s based too much on labor rates or categories, and not based on whether the vendor can do the work the agency needs.
“To be ‘best-in-class,’ you have to demonstrate that the vendor is best in class,” the source said. “I understand using it for some things, like delivery services, but for anything mission-related or more complicated, I’m not sure you can just look at the basic information and decide a contract is ‘best-in-class.’”
Lesley Field, the acting OFPP administrator — who, by the way, has been acting for more than a year— said at the Professional Services Council’s Vision Forecast Conference on Nov. 2 that agencies use rigorous criteria to determine “best-in-class.”
“We developed the requirements with a lot of government agencies in mind. It’s not just one agency, but there were customers at the table helping with the requirements,” Field said. “We want to take advantage of volume pricing. We want to have benchmarks for what industry is driving toward. We want to make sure is there data-driven demand and we have to validate our savings methodologies.”
But the criteria for “best-in-class,” according to GSA’s website, are much less rigorous than what Field described.
GSA says to be “best-in-class” a contract must:
- Allow acquisition experts to take advantage of pre-vetted, governmentwide contract solutions;
- Support a governmentwide migration to solutions that are mature and market-proven;
- Assist in the optimization of spend, within the governmentwide category management framework;
- Increase the transactional data available for agency level and governmentwide analysis of buying behavior.
Field said OFPP, GSA and other agencies look at those contracts to make sure they meet all these criteria as well as others, such as ensuring they support contracting with small businesses.
Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said his members and others in the federal community are concerned about the impact the “best-in-class” designation could have on the marketplace.
“To the extent that ‘best-in-class’ contracts are selected, it’s like picking winners and losers. It could lead to less competition and higher prices in the long run,” Waldron said. “Industry also is scratching their collective heads about what criteria should be used, and even if it’s the right idea. Best-in-class predisposes that it’s the right way to go, but what if it’s a platform or new idea instead of just a contract?”
Waldron said the Federal Acquisition Regulations already tell agencies there are priority sources of supply, so if OFPP wants to hold agencies accountable for using these “best-in-class” contracts, what does it mean for the small business community?
“Is best-in-class establishing a different framework for priorities?” he said. “We don’t understand why OFPP isn’t going through a typical rulemaking process. The Obama administration put out the circular and asked for some comment on it. We submitted a series of comments and questions, and to date, we’ve received no response from the executive branch. I’m not sure how OFPP can implement category management and best-in-class without addressing industry questions and concerns. It doesn’t demonstrate a real partnership.”
Industry isn’t the only place where collaboration may be falling short.
The second government source said OFPP has talked — but not to the acquisition community — about category management and the use of “best-in-class” contracts.
“I’ve been told our comments will be addressed,” the source said. “This is a leftover initiative from the last administration and they are just keeping it going without taking a new look at the effort.”
Sources said OFPP should bring the Chief Acquisition Officer’s Council together to discuss category management and what “best-in-class” really means before creating what some may view as a mandate to use these designated contracts.
Government and industry experts say OFPP should reconsider what “best-in-class” really means.
The government source said maybe it’s around acquisition practices and not contracts.
Waldron said maybe OFPP should consider identifying key characteristics of contracts to drive the best value.
“The only thing we have is criteria that were identified in the draft circular that are all process-driven, not outcome-driven,” he said. “Plus, the definition of best-in-class in government seems to be different than best-in-class in the private sector.”
Sources say one problem with the entire category management effort is it’s being driven by GSA and they stand to gain from the effort.
The first government source said OFPP needs to be more flexible in how it requires agencies to use these contracts. The source said they can’t understand how the GSA Schedules are considered “best-in-class,” given how many vendors there are and the fact that the prices aren’t great to start.
“The way GSA negotiates them means you are not getting the best price, because anyone can get on it as long as you are a legitimate company, you don’t have any failed past performance and can offer a decent price,” the source said. “To me, ‘best-in-class’ means you negotiated and are getting a good deal. Best-in-class should minimize my work and Schedule 70 doesn’t do that, and that’s where I get a little nervous because OFPP is going to an extreme. Best-in-class should be contracts that are products or services that are proven, efficient and cost-effective. You are after quality, timely delivery and cost-effective buying. Right now, the criteria is too loosely written.”
This post originally appeared on the Federal News Radio site at https://federalnewsradio.com/reporters-notebook-jason-miller/2017/11/ofpp-drafts-memo-to-replace-category-management-circular/ and was reprinted with permission. You can also click here to listen to Jason Miller discuss the topic on the Federal Drive podcast with Tom Temin.
Here’s a guest post from one of TAPE’s “capture managers,” a member of our business development team.
A large number of my family and friends live outside the “beltway.” So when I tell them I’m a capture manager, they give me a blank look – and you might, too. Unlike medical and legal professions, capture management is a profession that doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of the beltway. But today, we’re going to break it down and understand what capture is and how small businesses can use it to grow.
What is capture?
Selling to the Government is like a chess game with three phases:
- Opening – this is where businesses identify who they are, what they’re going to sell, and the clients they’re going to target. In essence, this is how businesses condition the marketplace to be successful.
- Middle – this is where businesses, focusing on specific accounts, manage the client relationship and develop opportunities. This middle game focuses on gathering information and then shaping the client’s perceptions. In essence, this stage of the game is all about conditioning the client.
- Endgame – this is where businesses write proposals, negotiate, and sign contracts. This endgame is where businesses condition the deal.
As in chess, when businesses wait until the end to try and win, they’re more likely to lose. Chess games and business contracts are won or lost a majority of the time in the middle game.
Capture is the middle game. It comes after making contact with a prospective client, and before an RFP is released. My colleagues and other industry veterans will tell you that a prospective client’s buying decision is typically 40-80% complete before proposals are even submitted. This means that the middle game constitutes as much as 70% of a company’s probability of win.
Considering these statistics, it is no wonder that large government contractors (LGCs) have dedicated capture teams. In addition to their capture personnel, though, LGCs have also developed a capture discipline, or set of processes, by which they organize, monitor, and evaluate their capture efforts.
Many small businesses cannot afford the cost of a dedicated capture team, but none can afford to neglect building a capture discipline. The question, then, is how can small businesses go about developing a capture discipline?
Developing a capture discipline
One way to begin developing a capture discipline is to define the activities and outcomes that reliably predict success. Since capture is all about conditioning the client to prefer your solution, at TAPE we use the following five characteristics to predict success:
- Strong client relationships
- Client-centered solutions
- Robust competitive intelligence
- Secure staffing
- Competitive pricing
When clients know you by name, when you’ve collaborated with them to develop their solution, when you’ve used your knowledge of the competition’s strengths and weaknesses to refine your solution, when you’ve identified staff in your solution that the client knows and trusts, and when you’ve priced it competitively you have effectively positioned yourself to win the contract.
Accomplishing all of these goals takes time and persistence. It also helps to have a shared understanding of the steps one takes to achieve these goals.
Building strong client relationships
Before I moved to the DC area, friends here told me that it’s not what you know, but who you know. While this is probably true everywhere, it is especially true for DC. Knowing the right people – and being known to the right people – is critical for success. To ensure that we’re building strong client relationships, we ask ourselves the following questions:
- Does the client know your name?
- Does the client understand your company’s capabilities?
- Has the client met with you to understand and/or develop their requirements?
- Does the client trust you?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, our team meets to devise a plan that changes those answers to yes. We assign tasks and record our progress so that our team operates from the same page. This data helps us measure our progress and make key decisions,
Developing client-centric solutions
This is the heart of capture, and doing it well requires that you know the customer’s needs, issues, and hot buttons. Client-centric solutions come down to four key steps:
- Meeting the needs of the customer
- Understanding the needs versus the wants
- Understanding the risks
- Developing a solution that meets the needs
Knowledge is power, and what you don’t know can hurt you. My mantra for capture comes from industry titan Bob Lohfeld, whose book of collected articles is titled Best Informed Wins. The whole idea for capture is that we gain as much intelligence as possible to win bids.
That includes intelligence on the customer and customer intimacy, e.g., do we know who the program manager and contracting manager are, have we had conversations with them, are they comfortable calling us by name, do they know who we are, either as TAPE or individuals?
What are their problems, what do they see as possible solutions, and how do we help them solve those problems? Knowing all of that gives us customer intimacy, and the intelligence that comes along with that.
Then there’s market intelligence, e.g., who are our competitors, what have they done recently, and what are their significant strengths and weaknesses? Do we have everything it takes to provide solutions or do we need to team? Do we have the right people, who are of interest to the program office, that they know and trust? Are we able to get people quickly?
There’s also financial intelligence, i.e., knowing the costs, how much the government has to spend and wants to spend. Is cost their biggest priority or is it having the right people?
The more informed we are, the better proposal we are able to write, so capture management is a process of strategically uncovering all the information we need to make the win.
We’ll address the fourth and fifth characteristics of successful capture (secure staffing and competitive pricing) in a future post, along with some of the other elements that affect TAPE’s capture process.
In preparing this blog post we benefitted from support from the Army Contracting Command-New Jersey to make sure the descriptions were correct.
Other transaction agreements (OTAs) and their underlying authorities allow for more flexible, commercial–like, and novel business solutions than the Federal Acquisition Regulation. In fact, Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) guidance states that contracting officers should not use specific templates for designing such structures. The intent, rather, is for the government to structure business arrangements that are most appropriate for each specific scenario.
However, there are OTA structures that have been effectively demonstrated and can be replicated. One such structure was implemented by Army Contracting Command-New Jersey (ACC-NJ) and involves the use of a consortia of companies interested in working with the Army within a given subject area.
The OTA consortium model has existed for more than a decade and has cumulatively resulted in the award of over $1B for prototype development. While there are several variants between OTA consortia, the general premise is that ACC-NJ executes an OTA not with a single entity but an organized group of entities that agree to participate under a common rule set.
The consortia typically employ a management organization to address administrative needs and manage the flow of information between the Army to the consortia. Typically, these consortia are designed to minimize barriers for new companies to participate.
In several cases, the application to become a consortium member is a one-page form that can be completed online with a $500 annual consortium membership fee. Prospective members must agree to the terms of the consortium and the OTA, but these terms are much more flexible than standard FAR-based contracts (e.g., intellectual property issues may be negotiated on a case-by-case basis).
Once the consortium self-forms the Government may negotiate and award a base OTA. Once the base OTA is awarded, the Government may issue calls for white papers to the consortium in lieu of full-up proposals, thereby cost effectively separating good ideas from those that are less desirable.
The Government may then select a small number of companies to submit a more formal proposal based on the evaluation of the white papers. Ultimately, the Government selects one or more awardees and delivers funding to the selected consortium member(s) – typically through the consortium management organization.
In any instance, OTA provides for flexibility to alter the solicitation, evaluation and award process. However, once the process is established, government compliance is extremely important to maintain fairness in determining contract awards.
The OTA consortium model provides tremendous flexibility, streamlined processes and procedures, and access to the broadest possible pool of prospective vendors.
This is a guest post by Donna Porch, former program director for MO PTAC-Kansas City.
Q: What are bonds and when are they required?
According to the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), a bond is a written document between a bidder or contractor (the principal) and a second party (the surety) to ensure fulfillment of the principal’s obligations to a third party (the obligee or government) identified in the bond. If the principal’s obligations are not met, the bond ensures payment, to the extent stipulated, of any loss sustained by the obligee. Put simply, bonding protects the government from financial losses.
The bonding process
Contractors seeking bonding must be prepared to prove to a surety that their company has the capacity, character and capital to perform the project(s) on which they are seeking to be bonded. Sureties want to be sure that entering into a bond relationship with a contractor is a good business decision.
Prior to issuing a bond, a surety will analyze a contractor’s capacity to perform (necessary equipment), financial strength (good credit history and line of credit), past performance in similar contracts, and organizational structure.
Types of bonds
In construction projects, it is typical for the federal government to require bid, performance and payment bonds.
A bid bond provides financial assurance to the government that a contractor has submitted the bid in good faith, that the contractor will not withdraw a bid and that if awarded the contract, the contractor intends to enter into the contract at the bid price. A bid bond also ensures that the contractor will provide the required performance and payment bonds.
A performance bond protects the government from financial loss should the contractor fail to perform the contract in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contract documents.
A payment bond guarantees the contractor will make payments to all subcontractors supplying labor and material in performing the government contract.
An ancillary bond guarantees other factors incidental but often essential to perform a contract.
When are bonds necessary?
Unless waived, bid bonds are only required when performance bonds or performance and payment bonds are required. In such cases, all bidders must submit a bid bond with the offer. The bid bond amount shall be at least 20 percent of the bid price but shall not exceed $3 million.
The Miller Act requires a successful bidder to submit performance and payment bonds for any construction contract exceeding $100,000. This requirement may be waived in limited circumstances. Unless the contracting officer determines that a lesser amount is adequate for the protection of the government, performance and payment bonds shall be 100 percent of the original contract price. If the contract price increases, the performance and payment bonds must also increase by the same amount.
For any construction contract between $25,000 and $100,000, the government contracting officer shall require two or more of the following payment protections from the successful bidder:
- A payment bond
- An irrevocable letter of credit, a written commitment by a federally insured bank to pay a stated amount until the expiration date of the letter
- A tripartite escrow agreement, in which the government makes payments to the contractor’s escrow account, and the escrow agent distributes the payments to the contractor’s suppliers of labor and material
- A certificate of deposit from a federally insured financial institution, executable by the contracting officer
- A deposit of the amount of the bond in U.S. bonds or notes, certified or cashier’s checks, bank drafts, postal money orders or currency
Generally, federal government agencies do not require performance and payment bonds for contracts other than construction contracts. However, they may require performance bonds when a contract exceeds the simplified acquisition threshold ($100,000) and government property/funds are provided to the contractor for use in performing the contract; when substantial progress payments are made to the contractor; or if the contract is for dismantling, demolition or removal of improvements.
A payment bond is only required when a performance bond is required and if its use is in the government’s interest. Annual bid bonds and annual performance bonds might be used in lieu of individual bonds for each project.
Reference the FAR Part 28 Bonds and Insurance for further guidelines on bonding for federal government contracts. State and local government agencies may also use bonds for their financial protection. However, they may use them in different contracting situations and with different dollar values.
For more information on bonding, consult your local Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Center (MO PTAC). A list of MO PTAC training seminars is available online.
Donna Porch was a former program director for MO PTAC-Kansas City. This article originally appeared at https://missouribusiness.net/article/bonding-basics/ (with permission from the Kansas City Small Business Monthly) and was reprinted with permission.