Amid the head-spinning diversity of government solicitations you’ll experience in your contracting journey, the uniform contract format (UCF) sits as a beacon of consistency and clarity.
Well, sort of. It’s true that UCF-based solicitations have all the same sections as outlined in Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Section 15.204-1, but the content within them can be as unique as the individual teams behind each procurement. However, it is worth your time to study the UCF because each section is fundamental to government contracting, and there’s a good chance you’ll come across UCF-based contracts in your search for government opportunities.
So let’s take a look at the Uniform Contract Format section by section, and see what we can learn about reviewing government bids to help us on our journey to winning contracts.
What is the Uniform Contract Format?
Simply put, the uniform contract format is a standardized way to create government solicitations. It includes 13 sections organized into four parts, and is always used in federal procurement when contracting by negotiation. It may be used for other types of solicitations (for instance, commercial items or services-based contracts), and contracting professionals will often use elements of the UCF to create their own, unique solicitation format.
Why should you care about learning the UCF? Because it will help you learn the government procurement process and help you develop crucial skills in reviewing government bids. Let’s take a look at each part of the UCF and it’s individual sections.
Part I of the Uniform Contract Format: The Schedule
Part I of the UCF is the called The Schedule and includes the majority of its sections, as follows:
- Solicitation/contract form
- Supplies or services and prices/costs
- Description/specifications/statement of work
- Packaging and marking
- Inspection and acceptance
- Deliveries or performance
- Contract administration data
- Special contract requirements
The information in this section focuses on the work to be performed (or items to be delivered), how it will be performed or delivered, and special requirements that are material to the eventual contract.
Section A of the Uniform Contract Format – Solicitation/Contract Form
Nearly every solicitation from a federal agency (and some from state & local) will start with a standard form with information filled out by the contracting officer. Savvy business development professionals can glean a lot of information from these forms, and the most commonly used is the Standard Form (SF) 1449 for the purchase of commercial items.
Each numbered block on a standard form has a purpose and function. Lookout for the date of solicitation issue and compare it to the due date for bids. Generally speaking, shorter intervals may suggest a straightforward procurement of common goods and services that don’t require much time or planning to source. Or, a short response time may suggest the contracting officer has a company in mind and wants to discourage more offerors from submitting a bid. If you ever hear someone say a solicitation is “wired” for another company, this is what they mean.
Longer response times may signify a complex requirement since the government is providing more time for industry to review and respond to the solicitation. Or, they may suggest an open field of competition, as the buyers want to provide plenty of time for industry to obtain the solicitation and compile their response. When you’re making decisions about which solicitations to pursue, response times can help you focus your efforts on opportunities that provide the best chance for a win.
Standard forms also provide information about the agency (if its a services-based contract, you want to pay attention to place of performance) and contact information where you should direct any questions about the solicitation. There is also a block that clarifies whether the opportunity is (or is not) set aside for small businesses. If you want to know whether your business qualifies as a small business, you’ll need to search the form (or elsewhere in the solicitation) to find out which North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) code is being used for the subject procurement.
Other sections of the standard form will tell you what is being purchased, in what quantities, and where the items should be delivered or provided. This is typically known as the Schedule of Supplies and Services, or simply “the Schedule.” The individual items listed here are called Contract Line Item Numbers, or “CLINs”. You’ll often hear an amalgamation of this term as the “CLIN Schedule” to describe the specific items being purchased.
Standard forms will also reveal clues about the accounting and appropriation of funds, but these require a knowledge of government accounting that is too advanced for this blog. As you develop your govcon knowledge, you’ll be able to review a standard form and glean a lot of valuable information about the solicitation within minutes. If you’re just starting out on your journey, focus on the due date and the schedule of supplies and services to learn what’s being purchased and when the government needs it.
Section B of the Uniform Contract Format – Supplies or Services and Prices/Costs
While the schedule of supplies and services will often be included on the standard form, it can also be found in Section B of the solicitation. This is a key section for small businesses to gauge the size and scope of the government’s requirement. Presuming you don’t have unlimited inventory or 10s of idle employees to staff out at your leisure, it’s good to figure out early in your assessment of the opportunity whether you can even satisfy it should your firm be selected.
Not many new entrants to government contracting will score a multi-million dollar contract right out of the gate. A good strategy instead is to look for smaller dollar opportunities under the simplified acquisition threshold that you have a more realistic chance of winning. Even if they are tens of thousands of dollars or less, they will help you get transactional and delivery experience that proves you are a capable business entity.
Section C of the Uniform Contract Format – Description / Specifications / Statement of Work
This is a key section of every solicitation because it describes what the government is buying. It can go by many names (product description, specification, statement or scope of work) and take several forms. Product descriptions or specifications are common in the acquisition of physical goods; statements of work are more often used when acquiring services. Whatever type is being used, it’s crucial to read it thoroughly and be honest about whether you have the capabilities to deliver what is being requested. Even requirements that are “right up your alley” will be attractive to your competitors, and you only have so much time and energy to pursue open government solicitations.
Sections D-F of the Uniform Contract Format – Packaging, Inspection & Performance
Section D, Packaging & Marking, is relevant if the solicitation is for products or special deliverables; it will describe how the items will be packaged, packed, preserved or marked. For instance, a solicitation for medical vaccines may have to be preserved using cold storage, so the government would include it’s specific instructions in this section. Section E, Inspection and Acceptance, is similar in nature because it describes how the government will inspect (and ideally, accept) the items you deliver. This is a big part of quality assurance, and failing to understand this section could result in a rejection of the items you deliver to the contracting customer.
Section F, Deliveries or performance, describes the requirements for how the items or services will be delivered or performed. Pay attention to how soon after contract award the items must be rendered; a shorter time period may require you to hold inventory in stock to avoid the risk of defaulting on delivery. A longer time period may provide you flexibility to source inventory from your providers (or manufacture it yourself) so you don’t have to keep those items in escrow while waiting for the government to make an award decision.
Sections G & H – Administration & Special Requirements
Section G, Contract administration data, includes instructions for how the post-award performance will be handled, including any government accounting data and a statement about how the government will pay the eventual awardee. Typically there is a place to provide invoicing instructions, so make sure you complete any fill-ins that are contained within.
Section H, Special contract requirements, deserves some extra attention. It is where you will find any non-standard (but still very important) clauses or procedures that may be unique to the acquiring agency. Sometimes you may need the assistance of a contracting attorney to interpret these provisions, so it’s best to pre-qualify an opportunity first to confirm that you are capable and eligible to bid before you dive into Section H and its subsequent Section I, where the standard clauses are contained. Many times, these non-standard requirements may be detailed in attachments to the solicitation, which you’ll see listed in Section J.
Part II of the Uniform Contract Format: Contract Clauses
Part II only includes one section, but it’s a doozy: contract clauses. There’s a good chance the majority of the page count of any government solicitation will be consumed by clauses, so let’s take a moment to consider what we can derive from this section.
Section I – Contract Clauses
Contract clauses are the source of much frustration and hand wringing in the govcon space. You’ll read some that seem to have little to no relevance to the task at hand, and others that you think may never apply. But if they are included in your contract, they are material to your performance.
Contracting professionals will often use old contracts as templates to expedite the process of writing new solicitations, which enables irrelevant or out of date clauses to find their way into your solicitation. It’s important to be familiar with the language in these clauses, as being ignorant of what they require will not alleviate your responsibilities as a government contractor. As you read more and more solicitations, you’ll see some common clauses that appear in most every bid. The changes clause, termination for convenience, and the default clause are three in particular that apply to government contract, even if they aren’t included in the documentation because of a principal known as the Christian Doctrine.
A full dive into government contracting clauses is beyond the scope of this blog (check out this resource from the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School for a good overview), but here are a few key takeaways:
- You can read every clause in Part 52 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation
- Every clause has a prescription which describes when and how it should be used
- Every federal agency has supplemental clauses; if you see these included in your solicitation, pay special attention
- Some clauses are just boilerplate legalese, and hardly ever become relevant, but you still need to be aware of them
- Other clauses are instructive and may require you to establish business or operational practices
- If you are concerned about a clause or do not understand it, we strongly advise you consult a government contracting expert or attorney
So that’s a brief look at contract clauses. What else is included in the uniform contract format?
Part III of the Uniform Contract Format: List of Documents, Exhibits, and Other Attachments
This part of the UCF is pretty straightforward and includes Section J, List of attachments. It refers to anything the government contracting professional can’t fit into the solicitation, which will be identified as an attachment, document, or exhibit. Those three terms are effectively synonymous; examples include pricing worksheets, special attestation forms, schematics or product specifications.
Part IV of the Uniform Contract Format: Representations and Instructions
This part includes four sections:
- Section K, Representations, certifications, and other statements of offerors
- Section L, Instructions, conditions, and notices to offerors or respondents
- Section M, Evaluation factors for award.
These sections are important to review when you are making go/no go decisions about pursuing the opportunity, and crucial to understand when you decide to prepare a bid. Let’s look at each one in detail.
Section K – Representations, certifications, and other statements of offerors
Representations and certifications are statements or attestations that you have to make to the government about your business, its principals, and your operations. In most cases, you will have filled these out when you registered your business in SAM.gov, but it’s a best practice to read them and always make sure you know what you are signing up for before you fill them all in. If you have any questions or concerns about what you are representing and certifying to the government, it’s best to consult a contracts attorney.
Solicitations that do not use the UCF will still have these key sections under headings like standard clauses, bidder certifications, attestations, and vendor responsibility. Getting in deep with these sections is time consuming and tedious, so it’s best to validate the opportunity first by reviewing the schedule, scope of services, and the next section we’ll discuss to determine if it’s worth the time and effort.
Sections L & M – Instructions to Offerors & Evaluation Method
A principle of government contracting is fair and open competition, which means that responsible companies should have every opportunity to compete for and win contracts. These principles are seen most demonstrably in Section L, Instructions, conditions, and notices to offerors or respondents and Section M, Evaluation factors for award, which explain to potential offerors what they need to submit and how they will be evaluated in the subsequent competition.
These are critical sections and generally found in every public sector solicitation, in some form or fashion. Section M is one of the first sections you should read after qualifying an opportunity because it tells you what matters most to the government customer. The traditional evaluation criteria are price, technical capability, and past performance. Some solicitations prioritize price over technical capability, where others will demonstrate a willingness to spend more for technical superiority.
When you validate an opportunity and decide to pursue it, you need to understand what matters most to the government buyer. And then you need to follow the instructions for preparing your proposal, which you’ll find in Section L. It is important to keep in mind that the process of creating a government proposal is NOT a creative writing exercise, but a compliance exercise. If the government says they want all vendors to propose their pricing on a template, do not take liberties with that template. Be precise and adhere to these instructions, or run the risk of having all your work thrown out for non-compliance.
So that’s it for the uniform contract format. The more solicitations you read that use the UCF, the better able you will be to quickly digest a potential opportunity and determine if it’s worth more of your precious time to review. Want some more help on the contracting journey? Sign up for our free 10-week email bootcamp, and we’ll teach you everything you need to know to launch your govcon ambitions. It’s free, so sign up now. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!