What Is CPAR? And How to Differentiate Yourself With CPAR Ratings

Customer feedback on your contract performance isn’t merely a way to learn if a client was satisfied— it is a tool to grow your project portfolio. You increase the odds of successful proposals. However, to do that, you need to have received exceptional feedback from your existing customers. For federal government customers, this means either they’ve rated you high on your CPAR, or they approved a 100% award fee for your cost-plus-award-fee contract.

CPARS, or Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System, is used by federal agencies to evaluate and provide a record of your contract performance. CPAR evaluation has five ratings: Exceptional, Very Good, Satisfactory, Marginal, and Unsatisfactory. The Federal News Network (FNN) quotes Greg Rothwell, former Department of Homeland Security chief procurement officer: “Getting a satisfactory kills you.”  Why? Because you’re not differentiated from the competition.

According to FNN, aggregate CPAR ratings have been trending lower for the past five years. More and more contractors are getting “Satisfactory” ratings, which customers tend to equate with a C grade. As you can imagine, that won’t do much to attract new client work. No one’s going to be incredibly excited to work with a “C-grade” contractor.

The real impact of these reports is that they are officially published documents that you can reference in new proposals. You can use these reports to differentiate yourself from your competition. CPAR evaluations are generally Quality, Schedule, Cost Control, Management, Small Business Subcontracting, and Regulatory Compliance.

So, what can you do to raise your rating from “Satisfactory” to “Very Good” or even “Exceptional?” What are some “low-hanging fruits” that can help you boost your CPAR rating?  We recommend using mature practices to score high on the following:

  • Schedule performance
  • Cost control
  • (Project or program) management

Schedule Performance

Schedule performance measures your timeliness in relation to agreed-upon dates. You’re not simply measuring your speed, so you don’t have to be the fastest to rate highly. You have to meet or exceed expectations.

To do that, first set those expectations and back them up by creating a project schedule that you can work from. Your schedule should account for new requirements or evolving priorities (which they undoubtedly will). Plan for them—remember Murphy’s Law? Fail to plan, plan to fail; it’s that simple.

To protect yourself, make sure to articulate any staffing constraints and any dependencies on the customer or third parties. Give yourself some slack in the schedule, so your performance won’t be derailed by unexpected challenges. To be clear, Slack doesn’t mean you should pad your task durations because the customer may notice and respond negatively.

Getting buy-in and managing stakeholder expectations are vital in making this work in your favor. It means you will have to communicate your plan well and convince the customer of its merits.

Report your progress to the customer throughout the project. Customers respond well to communication, especially when you have objective data to support it. If you can anticipate delays before they happen and communicate them in advance, all the better.

In all of this, the most important thing is the ongoing narrative. Delays due to external factors probably won’t hurt your schedule performance in the eyes of the customer. Revise the project schedule when requirements or circumstances change significantly to establish a new baseline. This may seem like a lot of work. It is, but it has a direct impact on your scorecard.

Cost Performance

Budgetary overruns are another common source of lowered CPAR scores because customers don’t appreciate being surprised by “sticker shock” either at the beginning or toward the end of a project. Provide your client with an overview of the Basis of Estimate (BOE) for your budget. Make sure they understand your justification because it will help them get on the same page as you. This can be as simple as listing a set of assumptions in your BOE.  

Since estimates typically rely on imperfect or preliminary information, it’s often necessary to revise the budget over the course of the project. No customer likes seeing a contractor exceed the initial allocation, so you have to handle this delicately. With the BOE in hand, this should be easy.

Cost control is about managing your costs for the scope of work that you signed up to do. You can request a budget increase if the project size changes. On the other hand, decrease the project scope if the client needs to stay within the initial budget. It is a choice. Ask your client to make it—after all, it is their budget.

To stay within the initial estimate (both budget and scope), we recommend distributing the project budget in manageable cost accounts. Measure all cost variances at the cost control account level, not at the aggregate level. During project execution, a deviation between the agreed-upon budget and your spend-to-date is not unexpected. Be sure to report and explain them to the customer, highlight the cost accounts, which have the most variance. The monthly progress report and the monthly review meeting are tools to help you with this.

Project Management

Excellent project management is proactive. It is also transparent (i.e., part of your project rhythm, not an add-on). It is expected. Your customer scores you on it. Done right, it will help you succeed. Excellent management can result in customer delight.

Remember, customers will always respond worse when they are surprised negatively, whether from cost overruns, missed deadlines, or diminished project scope. Please keep them in the loop! More than that, make them feel like their ongoing input matters.

Communicating with an impact is the single most crucial factor in any contracted work, which requires you to:

  • Conduct regular meetings with the customer. Make these meetings feel productive by preparing an agenda and a running “action items” list.
  • Develop progress reports that include challenges, setbacks, or ongoing issues so customers (and their management) won’t be surprised by them.
  • Identify and report any potential problems before they happen. In a sense, peek around the corner so that you can see risks. Customers have more confidence in a contractor with foresight. Better yet, use a risk register or similar tool to document and plan to respond to those risks. There may be some actions the customer or their management can take to mitigate some of these risks, so identify them early to ensure project success
  • Track change requests and ad hoc requests to manage scope, schedule, and budget. We recommend pulling them out of the “email abyss” into trackers.

Excellent project management relies on structured communication and project controls infrastructure. Remember, your project management practices profoundly impact the quality of customer feedback.

Measure Yourself for Higher CPAR Ratings

In the end, a government customer will evaluate you based on 1) the quality of your work products, 2) your schedule and cost performance, and 3) your project and program management skills.  If you want to achieve greater customer satisfaction and a better scorecard, you need to create internal metrics and measure yourself for these evaluation factors.

Use your internal measurements to find ways you can improve your project management. This is the clearest path toward “Very Good” or “Excellent” customer evaluations.

Is a high CPAR score a tool for you to differentiate from the competition?

You are bound to rise above a “Satisfactory” rating through careful planning and ongoing communication. That will differentiate you from your competition at the next proposal evaluation. A project team that scores high on CPAR produces high-quality work products without having to choose between timeliness and cost.

Remember self-evaluation using objective metrics removes the fog and helps obtain better customer evaluation.

If you want to improve your CPAR scores, download our free dashboard below containing the vital performance metrics to put you and your team on the right track.

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