Getting government contracts in the future depends greatly on how well a company has performed in the past. That’s because Federal procurement policy for years has stressed the importance of the government using past performance as a mandatory evaluation factor in solicitation for future contracts. Often, these solicitation evaluations are made on the basis of the past performance evaluations of a contractor’s previous efforts the government files in its past performance data base — the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS). So it’s important for contractors to make sure the information in the CPARS data base accurately shows the contractor’s good work.
Unfortunately, the quality of the information the government puts into CPARS can suffer from heavy workloads of contracting officers and contract specialists that can keep them from giving good performing contractors the credit they deserve. A 2017 DoD Inspector General report found that in the 239 Performance Assessment Reports (PARs) it reviewed, 200 were not properly prepared: the contract effort descriptions were not sufficient, the government had not rated all the evaluation factors, and the written narratives did not justify the ratings given.
Based on our firm’s experience in helping contractors challenge unfavorable CPARS evaluations, we have to agree with the IG’s conclusions.
But make no mistake: there are things contractors can do to make sure CPARS information describes their good work. One way contractors can make the CPARS process work for them is to become more proactive. We encourage contractors to get more involved in the CPARs process and not wait until the end of contract performance to review the government’s evaluation. This “early intervention” is not typical because, in theory and in practice, the CPARS process is typically government-driven. Contractors usually give input into the process only at the very end.
However, as a practical matter, the over-worked government procurement staff might appreciate getting contractor help in carrying out the CPARS process by providing drafts of required CPARS information.
Below, we focus on the three short-comings the DoD IG found and suggest ways that contractors can more proactively make sure the entire CPARS process shows the contractor in its best light.
1. Inadequate Contract Effort Description
Confronting the inadequate contract effort description problem begins at the start of contract performance. Early in contract performance, the government is supposed to make sure the CPARS system has a “Contract Description” of the work that will be evaluated later. FAR 42.1503(b)(1) says the evaluation “should include a clear, non-technical description of the principle purpose of the contract or order.” This description is an important piece of information, not so much for the contract being evaluated as for the contractor’s ability to win future contracts. According to DODIG Report (2017-081), “Source selection officials use the description of the contract purpose to determine whether the PAR is relevant to their source selection.” This important piece of information, however, is usually ignored by contractors and often inadequately described by the government. The DODIG gives the following example of an inadequate contract description: the government described the contract purpose as “Support AFSAT [Air Force Security Assistance Training Squadron] training program managers.” In the IG’s opinion, “This description did not provide a clear understanding of the principal purpose of the contract.”
It’s in a contractor’s long-term best interests to make sure the government adequately describes the work the contractor is doing. Contractors should see this as an opportunity to specifically identify key requirements and describe the type of effort consistent with the contractor’s future marketing plans.
Action Item: Write a draft of the Contract Description for the contracting officer, using the contract’s statement of work or requirements document as a starting point. There’s no harm in trying to get the contracting officer to file that in CPARs. One important point: get your draft to the contracting officer early because the Contract Description is supposed to be filed in CPARS or the Federal Procurement Data System early. Although your contracting officer might wait until the end of performance to try to enter it then, delay on your part is not wise.
2. Failure to Rate all Evaluation Factors
According to FAR 42.1503(b)(2), the government is required to rate contractors on each applicable evaluation factor. They include technical (quality of product or services), schedule/timeliness, and management and business relations. Undoubtedly, the busy schedules of contracting officers and contract specialists can force them to take short cuts, evaluating only some of the required factors and leaving out others.
Action Item: Again, take the lead. On a regular basis, contractors can keep internal and relatively-detailed records of how it believes it is performing on each of the CPARs evaluation factors. Many contracts have boilerplate requirements for monthly reports of “actions taken, solutions developed, etc.” To the extent possible, frame internal performance records to include the evaluation factors in CPARS and provide these reports to the contracting officer highlighting CPARS considerations like “benefit to the government.” This way, you are making it easier for the contracting officer to evaluate you on each factor because the material is already in the contract file—it can be “cut-and-paste.” This proactive approach also helps the government address the next shortcoming the IG found.
3. Written Narratives Did Not Justify the Ratings Given
In our experience, this is the most common mistake that government evaluators make: they fail to follow the rules on justifying the rating.
According to FAR 42.1503(b)(4), the government is supposed to rate the contractor’s performance for each factor as one of the following: Exceptional, Very good, Satisfactory, Marginal, or Unsatisfactory. In addition, the government must give a “supporting narrative” for its rating.
For example, if a contracting officer wants to rate a contractor as “Exceptional” on any of the various factors, the rating decision has to follow the FAR definition of “Exceptional”:
Performance meets contractual requirements and exceeds many to the Government’s benefit. The contractual performance of the element or sub-element being evaluated was accomplished with few minor problems for which corrective actions taken by the contractor were highly effective
FAR provides additional guidance in a “Note:”
To justify an Exceptional rating, identify multiple significant events and state how they were of benefit to the Government. A singular benefit, however, could be of such magnitude that it alone constitutes an Exceptional rating. Also, there should have been NO significant weaknesses identified.
The DoD IG report gives a good example of the wrong way to justify ratings. For example, in justifying an Exceptional rating, the agency stated simply: “Contractor complied with requirements or performed exceptionally.” The IG’s problem with this narrative was that it “did not identify in the written narrative multiple significant events or a singular event of significant magnitude that was a benefit to the Government.”
Action Item: As mentioned above, keep good internal records of contract performance, frame them consistent with CPARS language like “benefit to the government” and volunteer them to the government in a narrative that identifies “significant events” and describe why they benefitted the government.
Bottom line: Help the government help your company gets future contracts. When it comes to making sure that your good past performance gets entered into the government’s data base, it pays to be proactive.
About the Author
Terrence O’Connor is a Partner and Director of Government Contracts at Berenzweig Leonard. Terry got his start in government contracts as a federal government attorney, where he wrote government contracts and advised government employees on a wide range of procurement issues. While in private practice, he has taught government contracts law to contracting officers, contract specialists and other government procurement professionals as an instructor for Management Concepts, Inc.