Section 806 of the FY2020 NDAA directs the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment to review how the Department of Defense uses fixed-price contracts.
This is a topic that comes up periodically. To the uninitiated, it would seem that a fixed-price contract will result in larger profits, but that is not always the case.
We first have to understand that while it seems that fixed-price contracts have the potential for higher profits, they also have the potential for substantial losses. Assuming that there are no changes made, you will be obligated to deliver some set of things or services or things with services, at a fixed price, and it just isn’t necessarily clear when you go into this arrangement that the arrangement will be profitable.
It is true that you’ve priced it as a contractor to be profitable, however, circumstances change and the project can be different than you anticipated. Yet you’re still obligated to deliver that same set of things or services or things with services, for that same fixed price.
For example, let’s say I’m obligated to deliver 100 people throughout the country at various locations to do some clerical work. I’m required for those workers to have a certain level of skills, and a certain type of clearance. Well, I actually might deliver fewer people for a short period of time, because some people are in transit, or some have quit and not yet been replaced, but I’m still getting paid as if all 100 workers are still in place.
That’s good for me because I’ve getting paid a fixed price for 100 people and there’s only 95 on the job. Of course this is assuming that the number of people I’m not delivering doesn’t upset the client or cause me to miss deadlines or create problems that threaten my contract.
On the risk side, let’s say we’re in a very low unemployment rate, with correspondingly upward pressure on wages and skillsets. While I’ve told my client I’d deliver those 100 people for $65,000 each, now I’ve got to pay my employees $70,000 in order to get the required level of skill and so forth. Then my current people see what the new people are making and they want more money as well. Wages are up, which is good for people in general, but as a contractor I have to pay more and can’t charge the client more because we have a fixed-price contract.
So the reason fixed-price contracts are often won with a lesser value is because the risk is higher and therefore the margin that I pitch is higher. Often we build in contingencies as well, which might mean I think I can hire at $60,000, so I pitch at $65,000. But I could still end up having have to hire some at $68,000 or $70,000 so now I’m starting to lose money on those people.
This provision brings us into the study phase. The 2020 NDAA directs the Defense Department to look at the circumstances in which fixed-price contracts are used and awarded, and the experience from the government’s perspective.
Understand that the legislators are including many different forms of contracting that include the words fixed price that aren’t necessarily completely fixed, which has muddied the waters a little bit. They’ve included cost plus fixed fee, another form of fixed-priced contracting, and fixed labor rates. This will all come out in the wash.
They set a pretty aggressive deadline of February 2020 for the Under Secretary to brief the congressional defense committees on the findings of the review. If you have any comments once the NDAA is approved, let us know and we should be able to put our oar in the water through the Mid-Tier Advocacy group.