Accounting System, Cost And Accounting, DCAA Relations, Running Your Business

Some of Those Pesky Questions Surrounding Timekeeping

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With DCAA’s announced return to audit functions other than incurred cost proposals (Annual Report of Congress 2015), contractors need to dust off those policies and procedures and ask themselves a couple of questions. Let us start with labor, timekeeping, and payroll:

How do you control where staff are allowed to charge their time?

DCAA holds to the belief that contractors should authorize employees to on a project and restrict their ability to charge without authorization. Implicit in this is the concern that if Jane, assigned to work on Project A, does not have anything to do on project A, the government does not believe she should wander over to Project B and lend a hand without someone planning for this.

How do you address idle time?

There can be a couple of subtle levels to this question. The first level is literal; how do you address idle time. The correct answer is by charging overhead or G&A.

The second level is: when is idle time too much? When does it become unreasonable and thus DCAA might see the idle time as unallowable?

The old joke about auditors comes to mind – “Definition of an auditor: someone who shows up after the battle and bayonets the wounded”.

I once had a 622% overhead rate approved by the government based on idle time, but not without a fairly extensive fight with the DCAA auditor. The rate arose out of five engineers charging overhead 100% of their time for a few months. The story that won the approval actually involved the Princess of Wales and robots. How could you not win with such a cast? We attributed the idle time to a conflict between a DOD agency and an Army field commander. First, DOD sent these engineers into a foreign area as a perfect place to test their emerging technology. When they got there, the Army field commander informed them that the location was not a laboratory but a combat zone and wanted to know what the heck the paratroopers were going to do with the civilian engineers. DCAA then raised the allegation that the contractors turned the time into a vacation while DOD hashed it out as The engineers sat around charging overhead until the field commander finally sent them home.

I told the DCAA auditor, with a straight face, that I believed the engineers should have charged the project direct and not overhead; but since it was a single contract division it did not really matter.

The point is that idle time is often a reality of government contracting and is not always the contractor’s fault. Addressing idle capacity often calls for hard decisions and the contractor needs to prepare to defend those decisions when tax dollars are involved.

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Accounting System, Cost And Accounting, DCAA Relations, Incurred Cost Proposals, Running Your Business

Really? Meals and Entertainment Expenses

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While working on another project this morning, I recalled that twice in the last year; two separate DCAA auditors working thousands of miles apart, asked why the contractor had separate accounts for Meals and Entertainment in their Chart of Accounts.

Enough said?

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Part Two – Early Childhood or “How DCAA, Contractor, and Consultant Can Ruin an Audit”: Souring the Milk

When the contractor bid on the Air Force contract they had no written policies and procedures, utilized a popular accounting software package, and operated with an alphabetized chart of accounts (not really, but that is what their outside tax CPA claimed). There was an extensive inventory system that ran through cost of goods sold directly (no capitalized inventory).

Back in 2011, a DCAA audit of an accounting system focused, in theory, on two parts: the mechanics of the contractor’s accounting department (usually audited by field work) and the contractor’s policies and procedures (usually provided to DCAA ahead of the fieldwork). Often, DCAA looked at the proposed rates as part of the accounting system audit, effectively combing two audits into one.

Sometimes DCAA gave the impression that the policies and procedures were more of a checkbox than anything else. Often DCAA confirmed policies and procedures during the fieldwork. You would walk through an area such as invoicing, and DCAA would ask if this was reflected in your policies and procedures. You answered yes and moved on to the next subject.

Thus, it was possible to buy a set of policies and procedures, stamp your name on them, and send them to DCAA without realizing that the purchased policies and procedures did not relate to your business and operations at all and sometimes, just sometimes, get away with this.

When our contractor heard that DCAA was on the way, they hired a consulting firm and the consultant recommend they purchase the canned policies and procedures from still another consultant (still not me, (these cost over five times what mine cost)).

Contractor purchased said policies and procedures, but their name on them, and sent them into DCAA. Of course the purchased set of policies and procedures were geared toward a construction company, not a company developing scientific instruments.

The next recommendation the consultant made was based on the conclusion that the contractor’s accounting software set up was adequate. That it was possible to identify direct and indirect costs, claimed and unclaimed costs, plus government and commercial costs. All of the areas identified in the SF 1408 could be demonstrated and defended. The consultant decided on three indirect pools, Fringe, Overhead, and G&A. The consultant’s analysis indicated that the contractor spent $19.43 in indirect costs for every $13.05 in direct costs. The consultant prepared an incurred cost submission, using DCAA’s current ICE model, reflecting these conclusions.

Policies and procedures in place, accounting system compliant with the SF 1408, incurred cost proposals prepared and sent, and rates determined. The contractor felt ready for a DCAA audit.

DCAA came out in the late spring of 2011 and reached several immediate conclusions they promptly passed on to the contractor:

  • The Policies and Procedures provided by the contractor (purchased on recommendation of the consultant) not only had very little to do with the business operations of the contractor but those few areas, such as timekeeping, were not implemented or followed. For example, the policies called for supervisor approval on all timesheets while in practice all of the timesheets went straight to the bookkeeper for entry and processing.
  • The rates and rate structure found in the contractor’s incurred cost submission could not be replicated or tied to the contractor’s actual books of records. Direct and Indirect costs were confused and merged in several accounts. For example, the incurred cost submission reported a little over $90,000 in direct labor while the contractor’s trial balance reported the amount at about $23,000. The contractor and the consultant could not defend either number and there was some evidence the amount was closer to $600,000. Such problems were found throughout the incurred cost submission and the trial balance. This was not an incurred cost submission audit (thank you, thank you, thank you) but DCAA had properly used the concurrent document to try and figure the simple issue of direct and indirect within the contractor’s books.

As DCAA’s questions seem to multiple and answers seemed to generate only further questions. In response to DCAA comments, the contractor began to make rapid changes during the audit that only made things worse. Specifically, all of the costs that DCAA questioned as unallowable were moved to an unallowable G&A account. I do not know if the consultant was aware of the changes.

DCAA poor reaction to the contractor’s preparation and subsequent results raised alarm with the contractor. The contractor felt that the situation was spiraling out of control. Before the contractor received the statement of proposed findings, they terminated their relationship with the current consultant and engaged me as a replacement.

I literally walked into the middle of a bad DCAA audit without any clear idea about what was going on. I was concerned about the relationship with the former consultant but did not make any immediate decisions about either the quality of the previous consultant’s work or the contractor. I focused more on what I figured, wrongly, was DCAA issues.

I will admit that I have a tendency to blame DCAA in such circumstances, especially during this timeframe. On occasion I had seen DCAA and contractors feed off each other as both tried to figure out just what was going on. I listened to the contractor’s legitimate concerns about DCAA’s claims on rental cars as a classical example of audit confusion.  I just figured the consultant had gotten stuck in the middle and I offered a chance for a reset.

As I looked at it, it became clear that DCAA had done a pretty good job. The proposed findings were actually developed and discussed fully with the contractor before any commitment to writing and there were several proposed findings, nine to be exact. There was some confusion in the proposed findings. For example, one finding confused G&A Base and G&A Pool. Two other findings appeared contradictory until one realized the books were contradictory.

All in all, DCAA proposed nine findings:

  • Inadequate Internal Controls Over Timekeeping
  • Inadequate Segregation of Duties Over Timekeeping
  • Fragmentation of the G&A Base Used To Allocate G&A Costs
  • Failure To Properly Segregate and Accumulate Direct and Indirect Costs
  • Failure To Calculate and Monitor Indirect Rates
  • Improper Recording of Direct Material Costs
  • Noncompliance With FAR 52.232-22(c) Limitation of Funds
  • Use of an Arbitrary Rate to Bill the Government for Indirect Costs
  • Inclusion of Unallowable G&A Costs in the G&A Base

All of the findings were constructed and supported out of references to the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), something the successor auditor failed to do. The last finding was a little confusing, I am sure the auditor meant “Pool” and not “Base”.

Number six, “Improper Recording of Direct Material Costs”, arose out of the contractor utilizing a complicated inventory system but then expensing everything through Cost of Goods Sold. The auditor raised FAR 31.201-2 (a) (3) and pointed to the GAAP Matching principle as the basis for the proposed finding.

Number four, “Failure To Properly Segregate and Accumulate Direct and Indirect Costs”, arose out of the fact that the contractor had hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs (over half a million in labor alone) marked in the job system as commercial contract work but booked to indirect accounts in the general ledger such as “G&A Labor”.

The third proposed finding, “Fragmentation of the G&A Base Used To Allocate G&A Costs”, arose out of the circumstances I described above where DCAA raised the issue early in the audit, the contractor made a change, and DCAA gigged the contractor on the change.

It started when the auditor asserted that the FAR required (and I later confirmed this assertion) that all rental cars had to be compact to be allowable. The contractor found this so unbelievable that the CFO decided to move all rental cars to unallowable G&A. This of course raised another issue and DCAA proposed a finding based on the change. It took me a while to work this through with the CFO. Yes, the auditor was wrong about the rental car position but the issue was now direct versus indirect. It is not just the direct cost of the rental car that is alleged to be unallowable but also the associated G&A costs. That is why the change the contractor made did not work. Since the auditor was careful to support all of the proposed findings with strong regulatory support, it was doubtful the auditor would actually propose a finding asserting that rental cars must be compact, but the auditor had no problem with objecting to the change and creating proposed finding number three.

The first two timekeeping proposed findings, “Inadequate Internal Controls Over Timekeeping” and “Inadequate Segregation of Duties Over Timekeeping” were pretty standard DCAA objections. One, anybody could charge anything. Two, the bookkeeper approved the timesheets.

Findings seven and nine (corrected), “Noncompliance With FAR 52.232-22(c) Limitation of Funds” and “Inclusion of Unallowable G&A Costs in the G&A Base” are pretty standard also. Nine related to using unclaimed costs to calculate the indirect rate for proposing billing rates. The reason why I believe the auditor confused the terms “base” and ‘pool’ is due to the simple fact that unallowable direct costs are required to be included in the G&A base but unallowable G&A costs must be excluded from the G&A pool.

The last two findings, five “Failure To Calculate and Monitor Indirect Rates” and eight “Use of an Arbitrary Rate to Bill the Government for Indirect Costs” relate to the easy conclusion reached by DCAA that the contractor did not employ an accounting system that allowed for consistent, supported, and even clear calculation of rates and management of the associated pools/bases.

How was the consultant involved? Much of this had the consultant’s thumbprints on it. Proposed findings five, eight, and nine arose out of the consultant’s own work and conclusions. The first two findings plus number seven are government contractor compliance 101 and should have been addressed before the audit. As to number four, which the contractor included in the incurred cost proposal with fractional modifications, I noticed problems when I first glanced at the contractor’s general ledger.  I wondered, along with DCAA, about an 18 to 1 ratio of G&A labor to direct labor. I did not even need to ask the contractor, I simply ran a job ledger and saw hundreds of thousands of dollars marked with active jobs but booked to G&A labor. DCAA apparently saw the same data.

You might argue about the matching (proposed finding six), but given the extent and support surrounding the other findings, it would be drowned in all of the valid DCAA arguments.

I can only report what I found and my subsequent experience with the contractor. I continued to work with the contractor years after the events described. They were dedicated, even to the point where they considered compliance their patriotic duty. They understood, committed to, and adopted my recommendations, even though new issues with DCAA arose over the next several years. The last recommendation of mine they finally adopted was to leave government contracting. They were losing money with cost sharing contracts (no fee) and if the government wanted their technology the government could buy it like everyone else.

Next – “Potty Training”

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The Life of a Contractor: Part Two – Early Childhood or “How DCAA, Contractor, and Consultant Can Ruin an Audit”

Despite the apparent belief by the Air Force that DCAA would not show up, DCAA did. The contractor, with no professional accounting staff and an outside tax CPA who disavowed all knowledge of government contracting, hired an outside consultant (not me). It did not go well.

I am going to talk about what happened. I am going to talk about what the contractor did wrong and I am going to talk about what I believe the consultant did wrong. I am even going to talk a bit about what I believe DCAA did wrong.

I am uncomfortable criticizing another consultant for obvious reasons, but I believe the story of this contractor is an excellent example of the extremes that many small business government contractors face. The first consultant is part of this story.

Before I do this, I want to talk about why I believe hiring the right consultant is almost always the best step for a small government contractor to take. Since I happen to be the consultant I know best, some of what follows is self-serving and thus a little arrogant. I feel like I need to talk about what I see as the ‘good’ consultants and how to select one. I am sure many of you will take exception, please feel free to discuss.

The Risk and Consequences of Not Getting Help

The decision about bringing an outside consultant in to deal with DCAA is a difficult choice small business contractors make every day. Of course, before they even consider going alone, they should purchase and read my second book: Surviving a DCAA Audit: The Accounting System.

First incident of self-promotion aside, it is all a question of risk and consequences. The risks and consequences of an inadequate accounting system hits contractors in two major areas.

First, the lack of an excellent accounting system translates into poor knowledge about how efficient and profitable the company’s individual activities (jobs or projects) are. Small business owners utilize excellent common sense in this area; but improved data provides, if nothing else, a competitive advantage to either you or your competitors (those guys you are bidding against who know their costs).

Second, if DCAA determines the accounting system inadequate there can be major consequences. Just ask Lockheed Martin, who could not collect most of the profit on a major government contract for years after the government decided their cost accounting system inadequate. Also, look back at the small business contractor discussed in the first article of this series and their inability to recover money they believed the government owed them.

Cost seems to be a driving factor in deciding to select a consultant.  One of the biggest factors impacting consultant cost is contractor knowledge, contractor commitment, and the consultant’s ability to transfer that knowledge to the contractor.  I belief it is a natural conclusion that If you turn everything over to a consultant your costs, short term and long term, are higher. You also never gain the critical ability to assess their work.

Anyone reading my books or poking around my website quickly realize that I believe contractor knowledge is critical and reduces the cost to the government and the taxpayer. I like clients to graduate from my services or training programs. They know I am always there when they are not sure about an issue or there are major changes they want a fresh look at.

The quality of the consultant is an area that challenges contractors as they begin to look at the idea of bringing a consultant aboard. Here is another area where I believe providing potential clients with a serious look at the world of government contracting via my books and website helps with this decision. Although I know excellent consultants without a website and few of us author books.

I will address one common myth: Some contractors seem to believe that hiring a former DCAA auditor as a consultant is an obvious approach. Unfortunately, I believe this myth is simply not valid.

I know at least two excellent consultants who are former DCAA auditors and do simply outstanding work, but I know at least a dozen former DCAA auditors who do not. Before the former DCAA auditors scream at me, I believe the same about other consultants who never worked for DCAA. I know a handful of outstanding ones and dozens who are not.

My point is this:  experience as a DCAA auditor does not necessarily translate into success as a consultant working with DCAA. There is no special advantage or knowledge that a former DCAA auditor offers. There is no secret handshake or inside knowledge. I look forward to reading the arguments and support of anyone who claims otherwise.

Good auditors have a healthy amount of distrust. On numerous occasions we faced encounters where one DCAA auditor signed off on an item one year only to have another DCAA auditor object the next year to the very same item. If DCAA auditors have a healthy distrust of fellow DCAA auditors, why would they have more trust in a former DCAA auditor?

I noticed over the years on LinkedIn and other places that some former DCAA auditors continue to take DCAA’s positons on compliance issues; positions that myself and other experienced consultants do not necessarily agree with. According to DCAA’s own reports to Congress, only about half of DCAA positions are sustained. It is always easier to agree with DCAA but it is not always profitable or fair.

Again, according to DCAA’s own reports to Congress, the average number of audits completed by a DCAA auditor each year is under 1.5. That is not a lot of audit experience. I close a great deal many more than that each year.

I apologize that this seems to be an advertisement for myself and the few unidentified consultants I deem, in my arrogance, to label competent. As noted above, what follows is not only the story of a small business contractor who entered and later decided to leave government contracting; it is also the story of two consultants working with one of the more interesting (difficult) DCAA offices I work with.

To be continued…

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A Note on the Birth of the Contractor, the Previous Article.

One quick note about the contractor is described in the previous article, how I described their critical technology, and the way this often impacts the compliance process and audits.

Too many contractors believe that the importance of their work should provide them with a free pass on accountability.  I join with DCAA auditors and taxpayers in rejecting this positon.

DCAA auditors are required to walk a fine line between protecting taxpayers’ assets (money) and assuring that the service members DCAA are supporting get the resources they require. Often, the auditors have no knowledge of the contractor’s work and its importance.

In my book, Accounting Policies and Procedures: For Small Government Contractors Working with the DCAA and Other Government Agencies I encourage contractors to begin their accounting manual with a description of the company and the work they do:

“The manual should start with a little background information on your company as an introduction for the DCAA auditors. You would be surprised how hungry auditors are for this information, and how critical it is in their assessment of your operations. Rightly so, the DCAA auditors are an essential aspect of our nation’s defense and it is only natural they wish to make some attachments to your efforts in our nation’s defense. “

It does not appear that any such knowledge made any impact on this case, but I believe the concept is valid.

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The Birth, Life, and Death of a Small Business Contractor

 

 

Part One – The Illegitimate Birth

 

One of my clients is a small government contractor in the South with only a few employees. They are developing a technology that anyone could easily identify as critical in both military and civilian applications. The development is at a ‘job phase’ where units are built individually in the attempt to improve the process and the technology. Each one of these individual units are functional and critical.

Almost all of the national labs, many foreign countries, and others in industry have purchased these units and employed them immediately, even as the technology continues to be developed. I should say that the technology saves lives and is not a weapon.

Of course the military wanted the technology; but instead of going out and buying a unit, the military issued a contract, a cost type contract.  In 2010 the United States Air Force issued the contractor a cost type contract.

The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) restricts the government from issuing cost type contracts to contractors unless “The contractor’s accounting system is adequate for determining costs applicable to the contract or order…” (FAR 16.301-3(a)(3)). During this time, standing orders required the Air Force to wait on an opinion from DCAA about the contractor’s accounting system and for DCMA to issue an approval of the accounting system.  This was during a period where local contracting officers could not always know when and if DCAA would show up and the Air Force really wanted the technology and issued the contract without an approved or audited accounting system.

Why the Air Force did not simply follow the example of the National Labs and issue a fixed price contract or a purchase order, we will never know. Instead, the Air Force issued a cost type contract to a contractor without an approved or even audited accounting system.

The contractor did not realize that the Air Force actions transferred almost all of the risk concerning the contract to the contractor, the opposite of what a cost type contract is ‘designed’ to do.

The fact that the FAR prohibited the Air Force from issuing the contract is not a defense the contractor may raise as one contractor found out when they complained to the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals. In this case, the contractor claimed the government owed them hundreds of thousands of dollars. The government successfully argued that the contractor’s inadequate accounting system made any such claim impossible to support. An adequate accounting system protects the contractor and the government.

Of course, the Air Force or DCMA did order an audit and the contractor hired and consultant (not us) to help them with DCAA. This did not turn out well.

But a government contractor was born, arguably illegitimately, but born none the less.

Next, “How DCAA, Contractor, and Consultant Can Ruin an Audit”.

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17-2 Costs Related to Extraordinary Reviews of Unsettled Overhead Costs

One of the probably unforeseen outcomes of DCAA’s decision to spin off Chapter Seven of the Contract Audit Manual (CAM) into a new document SELECTED AREA OF COST GUIDEBOOK: FAR 31.205 COST PRINCIPLES is that it reminds us of some of the more interesting sections of the Contract Audit Manual.

And notice the clever way they seem to present their own thoughts as regulatory by linking their thoughts “Guidebook” to the actual rules “FAR 31.205 Cost Principles”.

Section 17 is lifted up from the CAM and only true regulatory or statutory reliance is the “reasonable and prudent” standard. In other words, DCAA applies the reasonable and prudent standard when they cannot find a law, legal decision, or regulation that supports their decision and decide that the contractor’s actions were not those typical to another contractor in a similar position. This assertion is made by DCAA Auditors whom, the vast majority, have never made a business decision. They have never sweated a payroll, created a set of books, invoiced, or other reasonable and prudent activities.

This aside, the section asserts DCAA’s right to question as unallowable contractor costs associated with reviewing indirect costs.

To your amazement, I have a few problems with this positon:

  • The adjective “Extraordinary” is in itself, extraordinary and subjective. It calls on DCAA auditors to determine if the review of indirect costs are routine or “extraordinary”.

 

Of course DCAA tries to help an auditor with this:

 

This extraordinary effort is often the result of the contractor’s earlier negligence in establishing, maintaining, and/or implementing an adequate system of internal control.

 When the circumstances cited above are encountered and the contractor is incurring or is expected to incur significant costs, the auditor should notify the contractor that the costs associated with such extraordinary reviews of unsettled overhead costs are considered to be unreasonable and will be questioned under FAR 31.201-3, Determining reasonableness. The reasons to be cited are:

  1.  1. The costs are not of a type generally recognized as ordinary and necessary for the conduct of the contractor’s business or the performance of a contract. The costs are duplicative of costs incurred for the same purpose in prior periods. The Government has already reimbursed the contractor for the costs of preparing billings and claims for reimbursement. The fact that this task was not adequately accomplished does not entitle the contractor to additional reimbursement.
  2. The costs are the result of the contractor’s failure to follow the requirements of generally accepted sound business practices and contract terms.
  3. The costs result from actions taken which were not those of a prudent businessman in the circumstances, considering his responsibilities to the owners of the business, his employees, his customers, the Government, and the public at large.

A lot more words they employ here call for professional judgement: negligence, significant, failure, and my favorite: duplicative.

Let us remember that DCAA Auditors are awarded professional judgment by an act of Congress. According to their own report to Congress, only about half of their professional judgements are supported and that is with the majority of contractors not contesting DCAA proposed decisions.

These words are loaded terms without definition. The “guidebook” provides no guidance to define the line between ordinary and extraordinary or any other loaded terms. The DFARS 252.242.-7006 provides some guidance on defining significant but this is not referenced in the guidebook.

2. And speaking of the DFAR regulation, how does this section match up with the requirement for Management Review and/or Internal Audit. When do these required activities become “extraordinary”?

3. Duplicative? Did DCAA forget that good internal controls are often duplicative by nature? When does double checking payroll cross from ordinary to extraordinary? When did taking advantage of the time spent preparing your incurred cost submission to check your costs become unreasonable and not prudent? Maybe DCAA is just trying to create work and success for themselves by discouraging contractors from double checking their work?

I am sorry, but I just have to wonder about this. Many people would argue that double entry is duplicative. Accounting is built on cross checking and rechecking, at least good accounting is.

DCAA, when you spend tax dollars to create something new, such as this guidebook, please create something new.

 

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