The process #
Up to this point, we haven’t actually even talked about the structure of the actual contract between the government and a contractor. In this section, we will cover the major steps in the procurement process from the government’s perspective, what goes into a contract, and some hoops that a vendor must jump through when they are trying to get started.
The government perspective #
[More to come]
The contract structure #
After all of the steps in a procurement are complete, you end up with an award. Although there are a lot of technical details associated with an award, it basically comes down to two major components: the “schedule” and clauses.
The schedule is, effectively, the “how” and the “what” that the government is buying. Typically, there is information about administrative details like invoicing information and acceptance conditions. But the main thing in the schedule is a description of the services or supplies to be delivered, often referencing a statement of work and breaking down the itemized deliverables, including the amount and unit cost of each deliverable, into separate contract line item numbers or “CLINs”.
In addition to the schedule, an award will include a number of clauses, that lay out the various terms and conditions that govern the contract. Many of these clauses are required by the FAR and will vary depending on the specific type of procurement. For the most part, these clauses will matter a great deal to the contracting officer and the vendor’s compliance folks, but will have limited effect on your day to day in government. Nevertheless, there are certain clauses that are particularly useful for the government.
A good example of useful clauses are those found in FAR 52.217-6 & 52.217-8, which allow the government to unilaterally increase the quantity for supplies and services. Suppose, then, you need 100 seats for a software service at the time of contract award, but discover a few months in that you need 15 more seats. If these clauses are included in the award, you can just increase the number of seats at the previously agreed-upon price.
The industry perspective #
Before a company becomes a government contractor, it has to jump through a bunch of hoops. In this section, we describe some of the major hoops that a contractor must jump through just to participate in government contracts. (In later chapters, we’ll go into even more detail into the specific contractor dynamics.) As a govvie, it’s useful to know some of these things so you can point vendors in the right direction if they’re unfamiliar with government contracting.
Register in SAM.gov #
The first thing that a vendor will need to do is to register in the federal System for Award Management, also known as SAM.gov. This process is more burdensome than at first blush. Even though it’s free, it takes time. Here are some of the specific pain points: (1) vendors need a DUNS number from Dun & Bradstreet; (2) they need to get a CAGE code (note: there’s often a back-and-forth process that happens over email in order to make sure vendors get a CAGE code); (3) vendors must properly answer all of the questions related to “reps and certs” (i.e., legal compliance stuff); and (4) vendors must get and submit a notarized letter to SAM. In short, it’s time and effort just to get in. But vendors cannot get a contract unless they’re in SAM.
Security clearances #
Depending on the type of work that a vendor will be doing with your agency, they may need to obtain security clearances. Usually, if a vendor’s personnel does not have the appropriate clearances, it will require either an agency sponsor or another vendor acting as a prime contractor to help the vendor get through the process. Just like your experience getting your SF-85 or SF-86, vendors will often need to get background checks completed before getting “badged” for a particular contract.
Work with PTACs, SBA, and OS(D)BU #
Because the government can be a demanding buyer, there are a number of free resources available to vendors that you should be aware of.
The first resource is a Procurement Technical Assistance Center, or “PTAC” (pronounced “PEE-tak”). Every state has at least one PTAC (you can find PTACs here: https://www.aptac-us.org/), and PTACs provide training and direct counseling for businesses who are interested in working with the federal government.
If you encounter a company that has not worked with government before, encouraging them to chat with a PTAC is a really smart idea.
The next resource is the Small Business Administration, which provides various contracting-assistance programs to small businesses. In general, the SBA is particular engaged in assisting disadvantaged businesses (i.e., women-owned, veteran-owned, minority-owned businesses) that qualify for set-asides (we’ll cover that later, too). But, the SBA also provides general counseling and lending resources to all small businesses.
The final resource is an agency Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization or “OSDBU” (pronounced “OZ-duh-boo”). Each agency has an OSDBU, which exists to help increase the number of agency contracts awarded to small businesses each year.
As a govvie who’s interested in tech procurement, you should get to know the folks in your agency’s OSDBU. It’s literally their job to help small businesses navigate federal procurement and to know how procurement in your agency works, so they often can give you good tips!