Think your CPARS ratings are out of your hands? Think again.


Dr. Jim Hiles, "The Godfather of SeaPort-e" has joined Iona Moon to provide his expertise in source selection, business development processes and other aspects of doing business in the federal marketspace. Today, Jim shares his thoughts on CPARS. You will want to learn what he knows. 

As the SeaPort-e rolling admissions timeclock spins down, I am reminded of the persistent effort by the Navy to maximize the use of past performance information databases at their disposal to help them make contract award decisions. Consistently, the SeaPort-e rolling admissions solicitations have included multiple references to making use of PPIRS and CPARS records as part of the evaluation and contract award decision processes.

The system the government uses to monitor, measure and provide feedback to contractors is called the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System or CPARS for short, accessible via the Past Performance Information Retrieval System or PPIRS. By system, I mean the entire ecosystem—the software, the business processes, the rules and regulations, the personality dynamics—all of it.  Government customers are “required” to complete a CPARS report card at least annually for every contract. I put “required” in quotes, because CPARS are not necessarily high among government personnel priorities. In many agencies, the emphasis is on the number of records completed rather than the quality of those records. However, some are evolving from merely getting them done, to doing them well, invoking such quality metrics as timeliness and narrative alignment with ratings.

Even among the agencies yet to prioritize CPARS, past performance is a key determining factor in the majority of source selections. In fact, it is often a “make or break” factor for bidders.

The SeaPort-e rolling admissions solicitation includes past performance as the number two evaluation criteria and includes discussions of past performance in establishing functional area qualification, in determining whether or not to exercise options or award terms and even goes so far as explicitly including the NAVSEA “use of the PPIRS Statistical Reporting” function clause. SeaPort-e has been consistent about encouraging the use of government past performance databases. But these efforts are tempered by the reality these repositories are still maturing, and not yet a wealth of information. Not enough to thoroughly assess past performance without getting past performance information directly from bidders.

This is changing, and it is in your best interest to reconsider two common misperceptions about CPARS reports. The first is commenting on CPARS report cards is only for rebutting or arguing about the ratings you received. The second is that you have no influence or input.

A prevalent assumption is one should only include CPARS comments to disagree with the ratings or report. Firms that instill this belief into their corporate culture do themselves a grave disservice. I do not agree with that limiting belief. Neither does the government. In fact, the government’s own guidance (FAR 42.1503) on this subject is that contractor comments are to be used for three purposes:

1) To provide comments
2) To provide additional information
3) To make rebutting statements

Two out of three of these are not to disagree or dispute, but to add additional information or context to what is typically an extremely limited write-up. I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity to expand on your story, as what will be there is almost-guaranteed to be skimpy. If you feel you must add rebutting comments, keep in mind this record will exist for years. Remove all emotion from your remarks. Sleep on it before hitting send. Have several objective reviewers look it over. Avoid any statement that portrays you as a combative business partner unwilling to accept accountability. The people reading these reports are deciding whether or not they want to work with you. This is not the place to air your grievances, no matter how valid they may be.

The second common misconception around CPARS is the government contractor is in the dark and occasionally sent a report that is never read again. The realities are: yes, your customers care about getting it right; yes, stakeholders use CPARS to make source selection decisions that directly impact your business success; and yes, you absolutely can play a key role in improving your CPARS ratings, beyond providing outstanding performance.

Another important truth: market-leading firms (i.e. your competitors) have learned proactive methods to improve their CPARS ratings. Many learned those methods from me. I go into much more detail in my book, “Federal Contracting: 13 Steps to Increase Your CPARS Ratings.”

For now, let’s look at three of those methods.

This should be blindingly obvious, but first and foremost your performance must be superlative. CPARS ratings are subjective by design. There is no guarantee what you think is worthy of the highest ratings will be reflected in your CPARS reports. Your challenge is to coordinate a team effort to do the best job possible, to connect that performance to your CPARS ratings and then to make every effort to ensure it gets included in your CPARS report cards.

Another item high on the must-do CPARS list is to know and maintain rapport with the people who complete your CPARS report cards. Multiple parties are likely involved on the government side. You may not know who they all are or how they are involved. You may only communicate with the assessing official, unaware that someone else is creating the actual write-up and assigning your initial ratings. These government personnel may not be aware of the business-critical nature of your CPARS ratings and may not rate your performance with the diligence or care it deserves. Make it your mission to find them, get to know them, and let them know how important accuracy is to you personally, your business, your customers and future government evaluators.

A third important item is take full advantage of CPARS comments fields. These are not “only for rebuttals.” Reject that notion and use the comments to complete the story on every record. It is probable your CPARS report cards are cryptic, abbreviated, and incomprehensible by anyone other than those who completed them. Approach these records as you would a past performance write up. Include such things as challenges overcome, performance against cost and awards or recognition received by you or your customer. Ideally, each record will stand as a testimonial to your value from which a prospective customer may quickly gain a positive impression.

The three steps highlighted here are but a few examples of actions you can take that when fully implemented will create performance and customer relations improvement cycles that feed on each other and help you to grow your business. Taking these and other steps to improve your CPARS ratings can and will pay dividends in the SeaPort-e rolling admissions process, task order competitions, in maintaining your SeaPort-e contract over the long term, and every time you compete across the federal marketspace.