An important milestone for government contractors and particularly to negotiated contracts is an adequate cost accounting system. Further, in today’s contracting environment having an adequate accounting system can be a pre-requisite for contracts. Today many Requests For Proposals (RFP) require it.
The need for a compliant accounting system depends on the contractor’s circumstances and contract types. For instance negotiated fixed price contracts do not require an adequate accounting system, only that the cost or pricing data submitted meets the cost or pricing data requirements. These requirements are defined by FAR 15.4. The accounting system should report certain financial data to support the cost or pricing data requirements under fixed price contracts such as indirect cost rate data. An adequate accounting system subject to DCAA preferences is most relevant to cost reimbursable contracts. Under cost reimbursable contracts the accounting system must be adequate and approved by the government under FAR Subpart 16.3. Securing approval is a significant accomplishment in this industry. In some cases the government requires an adequate accounting system under time and material contracts as well on a case by case basis.
To gain approval normally an audit is conducted by DCAA. Now, DCAA will not conduct this audit simply because the contractor wants an approved system. DCAA conducts audits on behalf of procurement agencies at their request. Contracting officers request DCAA perform these audits when there is a government need. So the first thing to do is get government sponsorship. This government agency can request the audit. This request is normally associated with an open RFP or contract.
What Does It Take to Get Approval?
For non-major contractors, I refer to twelve (12) key elements that you must pass. These are must haves, no exceptions, to secure approval for cost reimbursable contracts. Below not only have I listed the 12 key elements, but I have also elaborated on what these 11 items mean to prepare the contractor for its approved DCAA cost accounting system. In order for an accounting system to be approved, it must demonstrate the ability to meet these 12 key elements. Each of elements are described below.
Key Element No. 1: Segregate direct costs from indirect costs.
This means the contractor must demonstrate its system adequate segregates direct costs from indirect costs. First, the accounting system must pool the direct costs and indirect costs separately by account. Second, it should maintain a policy that describes the criteria for charging costs direct to contracts and indirect to indirect cost pool accounts. Third, it must demonstrate that the personnel responsible for coding costs fully understand the criteria for costing transactions direct and indirect. Finally, the contractors cost history must show that it adequately and consistently charges costs direct and indirect.
Key Element No. 2: Accumulate contract costs by cost element and by cost objective or contract
This means the contractor must maintain an adequate job costing system that is integrated with the accounting system. The contractor must demonstrate costs are accumulated by cost element and by project. This is typically accomplished by setting up a job number system and charging transactions to jobs by cost element account. The summary of all these jobs should equal the direct costs of each direct cost account in the company general ledger. Typically a summary report must be generated by job or project demonstrating the above. Often DCAA will request a job cost subsidiary ledger that agrees with the general ledger. A job cost subsidiary ledger lists each transaction charged to a job or project. The summary of all project subsidiary ledgers must add up to the direct cost balances in the general ledger.
Key Element No. 3: Homogenous indirect cost pools and allocation bases
Contractors are required to maintain homogenous indirect cost pools. This means the indirect costs must be accumulated into separate indirect cost pools combining functions that are not disparate. This means the functions must be similar and have a similar relationship to the cost objectives being managed. A violation would be combining manufacturing functions with engineering or services functions. These are disparate functions and are not homogenous. The most common indirect cost pool structure includes fringe, overhead and G&A.
The allocation bases used must be equitable. This means the allocation base selected must allocate indirect costs in an equitable manner avoiding skewing the allocation to one or a group of contracts. Allocation bases should be selected that best represent the activity being managed. This is normally an input base, an output base or some surrogate of both. The most commonly accepted allocation bases are:
Fringe – Total employee labor
Overhead – Direct labor, B&P/IR&D labor and allocable fringe
G&A – Total cost input or a value added base when the total cost input base proves to be inequitable.
Under cost reimbursable contracts, indirect cost rates should be calculated periodically on a year to date basis and compared to the budget or provisional indirect cost billing rates.
To demonstrate compliance, contractors are first expected to maintain a policy on indirect costs and allocation bases outlining the components of the indirect cost pools and their allocation bases. In addition, DCAA commonly will inspect and evaluate the indirect cost pools and composition to determine compliance with this requirement. Allocation bases are also evaluated to determine whether the allocation bases are equitable.
Key Element No. 4: Contract costs must be controlled by the general ledger
Most accounting system packages address this concern automatically. That is the job cost subsidiary ledger is controlled by the general ledger. As transactions are added or deleted or changed in the job cost subsidiary ledger, the general ledger for these direct cost accounts is updated automatically. A common DCAA test is to compare the summary of job costs by job or project to the direct cost account balances in the general ledger. Failure to demonstrate this test is a formula for failure for sure.
Key Element No.5: Demonstrate compliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles
Compliance requires that the accounting procedures and processes be in accord with generally accepted accounting principles. This means that direct costs and indirect costs must be accounted for on an accrual basis. Cash basis accounting systems are not acceptable. Accrual means that costs are recorded in the proper period as incurred not necessarily when paid. Costs should accrued or recorded when the contractor is liable for the cost and in some cases the cost should be allocated over periods that the cost represents. To demonstrate compliance contractors normally show accrual entries and accrual liability accounts. Often DCAA will inspect and evaluate accrual entries and test their validity. The most significant accrual item is labor to match payroll with the timing of timesheets or the timekeeping system. Other common accrual items include, payroll taxes, insurance, rent, depreciation and accrual of material and subcontract transactions. Recently DCAA has also requested evidence that revenue is accrued when required by generally accepted accounting principles.
Key Element No. 6: Pre-contract cost accounting
The contractor must record pre-contract costs separately. This is normally accomplished by setting up a pre-contract job or project number to separate pre-contract costs from costs incurred after the award of the contract. Pre-contract costs are incurred prior to the effective date of a contract to meet contract schedule or other significant contract requirements. If the costs incurred as pre-contract costs before the award or effective date of the contract would be allowable if incurred after the award of the contract, the pre-contract costs are generally speaking considered allowable subject to the need to meet contract schedule. Pre-contract costs are generally subject to an advanced agreement, FAR 31.205-32. Normally to demonstrate compliance with this requirement the contractor should demonstrate the ability of the accounting system to segregate these costs from contract costs including procedures to consistently segregate these costs.
Key Element No. 7: Maintain an adequate timekeeping system.
A crucial item in securing an adequate accounting system is to maintain an adequate timekeeping system. Given that labor is a large component of contract cost and the government focus on timekeeping, it is a must have to be successful. Honestly there really are not any FAR or legal authoritative regulations that define what an adequate timekeeping system requires. It is limited to having a system that accurately records time to accurately charge labor to cost objectives. The timekeeping system requirements or preferences have been developed over time by regulators such as DCAA outlining preferences required. First, the contractor must maintain a written policy on timekeeping describing timekeeping practices. This document should be provided to all employees and periodic training should be provided. Both manual and electronic system are acceptable. The government typically is indifferent as long as the system used is consistently applied in a compliant manner.
Some of these include items or preferences include:
- Each employee must record all hours worked and complete their time daily. Projects, indirect accounts or cost objectives must be charged by daily tally.
- Provisions for identity and control of time keeping documents.
- Employee must sign the timesheet and it must be approved by the employee’s supervisor at the end of the timekeeping period.
- The system must require correction procedures that meet DCAA preferences. In manual systems this means changes are made by the employee by single line cross out and employee initials and date. The reason for changes are often required.
- Time must be recorded based on actual time worked not funding or any other criteria.
- Periodic training of employees regarding timekeeping rules.
- Electronic systems require additional requirements for security and change control/visibility. Under these systems, the most significant difference is all entries, changes, signature and approvals must be tracked by time stamp. In other words, it must answer the question who did what to who and when in regard to timekeeping entries.
Key Element No. 8: Adequate labor distribution systems.
To be considered compliant, contractors must be able to provide a labor distribution report based on the timekeeping system. This report typically includes hours and labor dollars by employee by cost objective (projects) and indirect labor accounts. This report should tie to both the timekeeping system and the payroll system. Typically a reconciliation between the labor distribution report, the timekeeping system and the payroll are required.
Key Element No. 9: Accounting for unallowable costs
The contractor must demonstrate its ability to meet the requirements of FAR 31.201-6. This means that contractors must segregate costs determined to be unallowable based on FAR 31.2 separately from direct and indirect cost pools. These costs are typically accumulated and segregated in an unallowable cost pool. Unallowable costs must be excluded from the indirect cost pools when developing indirect cost rates. Such costs cannot be included in any billing, claim or proposal. To demonstrate this capability, contractors must show the unallowable cost pool by account. Also, it should maintain a policy defining the procedures it uses to meet this requirement. It should demonstrate that personnel responsible for coding transactions are adequately trained and knowledgable in FAR 31.2. Generally speaking contractors should make the provisions of FAR 31.2 readily available for employees as a reference document. On a separate note, indirect cost rates must be developed in a manner that allocates indirect costs to unallowable direct and allocation base costs. If a cost is normally included in an allocation base it must be included whether allowable or not. For example any direct, fringe, or overhead cost that is determined to be unallowable per FAR 31.2 must be included in the appropriate allocation base if allowable direct, fringe and overhead costs are included in the allocation base.
Key Element No. 10: Interim Accumulation of Costs
The accounting system needs to be updated or post transactions at least monthly. In addition, the accounting system must be able to present the costs on a current, year to date and cumulative basis at least monthly inclusive of indirect costs to provide a full absorption costing of a project or contract.
This can be demonstrated with job cost reports on a current period, year to date and inception to date basis. The balances need to be traceable to the job cost subsidiary ledger. Most project accounting systems can handle the accumulation of direct costs by project as described above. Indirect cost allocation tools may be necessary to present indirect cost allocations. The indirect cost allocation can be handled manually as well. Indirect cost allocations be made consistent with the contractors disclosed practices.
Key Element No. 11: Track costs by contract line item
Under certain types of contracts, the tracking of costs by Contract Line Item (CLIN) may be required. This means the project must be segregated by CLIN. The accounting system must treat each CLIN as a project or cost objective and charge costs to the CLIN in the same manner as it charges costs to projects. These CLIN accumulations should be reported or rolled up to the contract level.
Compliance with this requirement can be demonstrated by showing CLIN level project numbers within a contract and reporting costs to each contract line item.
Key Element No 12: Limitation of Cost and Funds/Invoicing Clauses
Many contracts include the Limitation of Costs and Funds clauses. These clauses require the contractor to track funding and contract cost. Contractors are required to notify the contracting officer when the contract costs reach 85% of funding.
Under an accounting system evaluation the government requires costs be tracked and reported on a cumulative basis and be compared to funding. This will permit the contractor to evaluate the cost position as compared to funding.
To demonstrate compliance or capability, reports should be generated showing costs by project on a current, year to date and cumulative to date basis inclusive of indirect cost allocations. This cost presentation is then compared to funding.
There are many different invoicing clauses. The contractor must demonstrate its capabilities to meet the applicable invoicing clause. Under cost reimbursable contracts compliance with the Allowable Cost and Payment clause is required. The major provisions include:
- Demonstrating that costs can be reported by project by cost element on current, year to date and cumulative to date basis.
- Accumulating and invoicing costs by CLIN or other contract funding requirements.
- Use of provisional indirect cost billing rates. This includes providing provisional indirect cost rate proposals on a timely basis
- Timely payment of costs that are accrued and billed. This would include labor, materials and subcontract accruals among others. In this case, payment must be made in the normal course of business in accordance vendor or subcontract terms or within 30 days of invoice.
- Procedures to make adequate and timely incurred cost submissions
- Maintenance of records in accordance with government contract record retention requirements
- Invoicing of project costs based on the accounting system. That is, invoice direct costs recorded for the period. This prohibits the invoicing of estimated costs. Invoiced direct costs must agree to the direct costs recorded by the accounting system.
If the contractor can meet these cost reimbursable contract invoicing requirements, it will likely be able to meet progress payment and time materials invoicing terms.
I hope this discussion has been helpful in understanding the government contract accounting system requirements.
Edward D. Moore
dcaaConsulting LLC is a professional consulting company specializing in Defense Contract Audit Agency audits and related matters, government contract proposals and pricing, the Federal Acquisition Regulation and the Cost Accounting Standards.