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What is a contract? What is contract management?

Vern Edwards

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What follows is a draft that I have written for general descriptive and explanatory purposes on the topics: "What is a contract?" and "What is contract management?" It is intended to be brief and introductory in nature. The intended audience is contract managers, prospective contract managers, and personnel managers in both the public and private sectors and in Government and private sector contracting.

I invite you to submit comments on the substance of it. What do you like, agree with, if anything. What do you dislike, disagree with? (This is a first draft, so don't address typos, format, etc.) You can comment publicly, here at the blog, or you comment privately via the Wifcon member channel.

Thanks in advance for your time.

What is a Contract?

What is Contract Management?

What Is A Contract?

The concept of contract is extraordinarily complex. One can define the word broadly and in general terms, or narrowly, in legal terms, depending on your purpose.

Common Dictionary Definitions

According to current edition of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online March 2014), the ultimate source of the English noun is the Latin verb contrahere, which means to draw together, collect, unite. The word came into English via Old French, and its first recorded use in English was by Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it in The Canterbury Tales in the year 1386 (and spelled it “contractes”).

According to the OED, contract (noun) means:

A mutual agreement between two or more parties that something shall be done or forborne by one or both; a compact, covenant, bargain; esp. such as has legal effects….

Similar definitions appear in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th and in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged).

Legal Definitions

Restatement of the Law of Contracts 2d, § 1, defines contract as follows:

A contract is a promise or set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty.

Black’s Law Dictionary 9th (2009) devotes 11 pages to the definition of contract, defining the basic word and many variations, such as adhesion contract, bilateral contract, blanket contract, consensual contract, cost-plus contract, fixed-price contract, gratuitous contract, informal contract, parol contract, requirements contract, service contract, subcontract, unilateral contract, and void contract.

The basic definition in Black’s is:

An agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law…. 2. The writing that sets forth such an agreement….

(Note the distinction made between the actual agreement between the parties and the document that memorializes it.)

Definitions in Statute and Regulation

The word contract is used (but not defined) in the U.S. Constitution in Article I, Section 10, and in Article VI, and both used and defined in many ways for different purposes in hundreds of places throughout the United States Code (U.S.C.) and the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.). See, for example, the regulations of the Office of Management and Budget at 5 C.F.R. § 1315.2:

Contract means any enforceable agreement, including rental and lease agreements, purchase orders, delivery orders (including obligations under Federal Supply Schedule contracts), requirements-type (open-ended) service contracts, and blanket purchases agreements between an agency and a vendor for the acquisition of goods or services and agreements entered into under the Agricultural Act of 1949 (7 U.S.C. 1421 et seq.). Contracts must meet the requirements of § 1315.9(a).

A much more common definition, which appears in several places in the C.F.R., is given in Department of Agriculture regulations, at 7 C.F.R. § 3016.3:

Contract means (except as used in the definitions for grant and subgrant in this section and except where qualified by Federal) a procurement contract under a grant or subgrant, and means a procurement subcontract under a contract.

See Department of Energy regulation, 10 C.F.R. 784.12:

Contract means any contract, grant, agreement, understanding, or other arrangement, which includes research, development, or demonstration work, and includes any assignment or substitution of parties.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), 48 C.F.R. Chapter 1, § 2.101, defines contract as follows:

“Contract” means a mutually binding legal relationship obligating the seller to furnish the supplies or services (including construction) and the buyer to pay for them. It includes all types of commitments that obligate the Government to an expenditure of appropriated funds and that, except as otherwise authorized, are in writing. In addition to bilateral instruments, contracts include (but are not limited to) awards and notices of awards; job orders or task letters issued under basic ordering agreements; letter contracts; orders, such as purchase orders, under which the contract becomes effective by written acceptance or performance; and bilateral contract modifications. Contracts do not include grants and cooperative agreements covered by 31 U.S.C. 6301, et seq. For discussion of various types of contracts, see Part 16.

(That definition refers to what is sometimes called a “procurement contract” for the purchase of property or services. See 31 U.S.C. § 6303.)

Perhaps the most sensible answer ever given to the question, “What is a contract?” was written by John D. Calamari and Joseph M. Petrillo and appears in their legal textbook (hornbook), Calamari and Petrillo on Contracts 6th (2009) on page 1:

No entirely satisfactory definition of the term “contract” has ever been devised. The difficulty of definition arises from the diversity of the expressions of assent which may properly be denominated “contracts” and from the various perspectives from which their formation and consequences may be viewed.

The Core Concept

The core concept is that of agreement between two or more parties about promises they have made. Such an agreement might be referred to as a bargain, deal, meeting of the minds or, more formally, mutual assent. A contract can be for an undertaking as simple as an immediate purchase-sale transaction between individuals, in which nothing is written and little if anything is said, or as complex as a years-long relationship between a team of corporations and a government agency that attracts national or even international attention and in which thousands of managers and workers are employed, millions of pages of documents are prepared, and hundreds of meetings are conducted.

Some persons categorize contracts as either discrete or transactional on one hand and relational on the other. See, for example, Macneil, "The Many Futures of Contracts," Southern California Law Review, (1973 - 1974), 47 S. Cal. L. Rev. 691, 693-4:

The purity and simplicity of the traditional tenet arises from its presupposition that a contract is a discrete transaction. A transaction is an event sensibly viewable separately from events preceding and following it, indeed from other events accompanying it temporally one engaging only small segments of the total personal beings of the participants. Only this separability permits such a clean and clear definition of contract as that of the Restatement, and with it the singular future of contract based only on promise-with-law.

But is the world of contract a world of discrete transactions so defined? Or is it a world of relation, an ongoing dynamic state, no segment of which--past, present or future--can sensibly be viewed independently from other segments? Is it a world entirely of segmental personal engagements, or is it one tending to engage many aspects of the total personal beings of the participants?

[Footnotes omitted.]

Contracts are created through an often complex and lengthy process that is sometimes referred to as contract formation or as offer and acceptance. The process might take place more or less as follows: One party, an offeror, makes an offer, which is a promise, to another party, an offeree, seeking to get something in exchange, usually a return promise. The promise might be to do something or to refrain from doing something. If the offeree agrees to the offeror’s terms for the exchange of promises, then he or she is said to have accepted the offer, thereby making a promise in return. The offeree’s return promise is deemed consideration for the offer — something that the offeror bargained for and that “seals the deal” between the parties. Assuming that both parties are legally competent to engage in such an exchange, and assuming that the promises exchanged are lawful, the parties’ agreement is mutual assent to the terms of the exchange and forms a contract. The parties are now bound to one another, and the courts will enforce the contract. (For a more complete discussion of the process, see Joseph M. Perillo, Calamari and Perillo on Contracts 6th (2009) Ch. 2.)

The specialized role of professional contract manager developed when contracts became complex, the rules governing them became voluminous and difficult to understand, and the work of making and maintaining them became specialized. Contract managers view contracts as business relationships that require great care and attention to detail in planning, creation, maintenance, and in closing out when completed. That process is called contract management.

What is Contract Management?

Contract management is the professional art of negotiating mutually beneficial business agreements and of forging and maintaining mutually rewarding business relationships. Contracts involving anything more than simple and immediate purchase and sale transactions are relationships. While contract management entails compliance with laws, regulations, policies, court decisions, etc., it is not primarily a legal process. Contract management is, first and foremost, a relationship management process. Contract managers enable and assist people and organizations to unite and cooperate to their mutual benefit.

Business is regulated in most countries, so contract managers must know and ensure compliance with many statutes, regulations, policies, and judicial and administrative decisions (collectively, “the rules”) that govern the contracting process, and they must be able to advise others in their organizations concerning the proper interpretation and application of the rules. This is especially true of Government contracting. The rules are complex and often written in arcane language using officially defined words and specialized terms of art. (The FAR alone contains more than 800 officially defined words and terms.) In order to be able to interpret and apply the rules properly and advise others how to do so, contract managers must be prodigious readers, so they can stay abreast of the latest developments in the law, in the industries and markets in which they do business, and in their profession.

The contract management process plays out in four phases: (1) research and planning, (2) contract formation, (3) contract execution, and (4) contract closeout.

The Research and Planning Phase

During the research and planning phase, the buyer determines its acquisition objectives — what it lacks and what its specific requirements are, decides how to proceed through the contract formation and contract execution phases, and establishes a budget and a schedule for the accomplishment of its objectives.

As generalists, contract managers should have, or be able to obtain through market research, information about the products or services to be acquired under contract. Generally, this will be the knowledge of an educated layperson, rather than a technical expert. They should be sufficiently familiar with the industries that produce or provide those products or services and the markets in which they are sold to be able to review specifications or statements of work for clarity, suitability, and general adequacy, to negotiate product or service specific contract terms, and to negotiate prices, estimated costs and fees, or hourly labor rates. They should have a general understanding of the methods of production or performance and of quality control and quality assurance used by the industry.

Contract managers who support projects or programs should understand the fundamentals of project management and some of the tools used by project managers, such as Work Breakdown Structures, Earned Value Management Systems, the Program Evaluation and Review Technique, and the Critical Path Method. (See A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) 2000 Edition), ANSI/PMI 99-001-2000.) They should understand project funding and contract financing arrangements. And they should understand the fundamentals of intellectual property law, policy, and practice regarding patents, rights in technical data, and copyrights.

Contract managers must be effective relationship designers and builders. In order to unite people and organizations, contract managers must investigate and understand their respective points of view, objectives, needs, requirements, concerns, perceptions of risk, and differences. They must analyze the business strategies of their own organizations and of prospective business partners, determine how they mesh and conflict, if at all, and then must estimate, predict, and plan accordingly. They must choose and employ ethical and appropriate tactics to achieve the parties’ respective objectives in mutually acceptable ways. They must know how to use the arts of explanation and persuasion to acknowledge and resolve differences, and know how to draft agreements that impose reasonable obligations and fairly allocate business risks.

The Contract Formation Phase

The crucial phase in contract management is contract formation, the process of offer and acceptance. The objective is mutual assent — a meeting of the minds. The judgments, decisions, plans, proposals, and agreements made during contract formation will set the stage for all that follows. A well-managed and conducted contract formation process greatly increases the likelihood of successful contract execution and reduces the risk of disappointment or failure. For that reason, seasoned contract managers should play the lead role in contract formation. If someone else is chosen to play that role — perhaps a program or project manager — the contract manager should be that person’s key advisor.

In Government contracting, the contract formation process is managed under extensive and complex rules — statutes, regulations, policies, and protest case law — and contract managers engaged in Government contract formation must be thoroughly familiar with them. The Government’s contracting officer is the process manager, responsible for ensuring that it is conducted in strict accordance with the rules and that all offerors are treated fairly. See FAR 1.602-1( b ):

No contract shall be entered into unless the contracting officer ensures that all requirements of law, executive orders, regulations, and all other applicable procedures, including clearances and approvals, have been met.

Moreover, contract managers must have a thorough understanding not only of the contracting rules, but also of the fundamentals of sound business decision-making that underlie the proposal evaluation and source selection process used by most federal agencies. And since they must analyze business proposals and negotiate contract terms, including prices, they should understand the industry that produces the goods or services being acquired, the practices used to set their prices, and the market in which they are sold and purchased.

In Government contracting, more regulation is devoted to contract pricing than to any other single topic, and contract managers involved in proposal analysis and contract negotiations should have an expert understanding of the pricing rules, which include rules about the submission and certification of cost or pricing data, cost allowability, cost accounting standards, cost and price analysis, and subcontract pricing. In order to engage in proposal analysis and contract pricing, contract managers must be knowledgeable of the fundamentals of cost estimating and of product and service pricing, and of pricing laws, regulations, and policies. They must be competent in the use of basic arithmetic and at least basic business mathematics. Such competence is essential to an understanding of the fundamentals of cost estimating, cost uncertainty analysis, cost risk, and contract pricing.

The Contract Execution Phase

During contract execution, contract managers must ensure that the parties fulfill their obligations to each other and respect each other's rights. This requires that they be thoroughly familiar with the contract terms and understand the basics of contract interpretation.

Reality does not always match expectations, and contract managers must know how to adapt when plans do not work out and when the worst case turns out to be the real case. Contract managers must be problem solvers par excellence. They must know how to ease tensions and avoid conflicts or resolve them when they occur. When problems arise, as they almost inevitably will from time to time, contract managers must come to the conference table with coherent and rational analyses, persuasive, evidence-based answers and explanations, and a menu of appropriate solution alternatives. In complex undertakings, unexpected events and change are inevitable, and contract managers must manage the change process so as to facilitate smooth transitions from old to new plans and contract terms, control costs and maintain schedules, if possible, and prevent misunderstandings and disputes.

While there will often be some tension between buyers and sellers, especially under fixed-price contracts, the parties should try to meet on common ground, and to create common ground when necessary, in order to make their relationship as productive as possible and to prevent it from becoming a zero-sum game. The contract execution phase should not be a period in which the parties race to see who comes out best. The goal should be to reach the finish line at the same time through honesty, mutual respect, cooperation, good faith, and fair dealing.

If disputes do arise, contract managers must prevent them from becoming disruptive to the point of putting the entire relationship at risk. In government contracting, the disputes process is governed by statute (41 U.S.C. §§ 7107 et seq.) and regulation (FAR Subpart 33.3). In settling disputes, the contracting officer must play the crucial role of impartial judge and make a decision based on his or her own independent judgement, an especially demanding task, but one that the courts and boards of contract appeals have found the contracting officer to be contractually bound to perform. See Atkins North American, Inc. v. United States, 106 Fed. Cl. 491 (2012).

The Contract Closeout Phase

Once a contract has been fully performed (“executed”), the parties may have some final administrative actions to take in order to complete their records and “close out” the business file. In Government contracting, FAR § 4.804 specifies a number of closeout tasks to be performed. Statute or regulation may require that the parties retain and store certain of their records for specified periods of time. See, for example, FAR Subpart 4.7. This work might be done by a contract manager or by administrative or clerical staff. Whoever does it, it must be done promptly and attentively.

The Requisite Skills of the Contract Manager

In order to do their work, contract managers must be skilled in oral and written communication.

Contract managers must be confident and persuasive presenters, able to describe and explain complex ideas to others, either with preparation or extemporaneously, to both informed colleagues and to those with little understanding of the issues, to both supporters and to skeptics or even opponents. They must be wise and skilled fact-finders and negotiators.

Contract managers often must write letters, emails, plans, and various memoranda that describe, explain, and justify their judgments, recommendations, decisions, and actions in order to establish compliance with statutes, regulations, policies, and contracts. So they must be competent writers of descriptive and advocatory business prose, because governments at all levels demand that businesses create and maintain often extensive records of their transactions and business relationships. Assessments of the quality of their work and of their professional and personal integrity will rest in no small measure on the contemporaneous documentation they create. Their documentation must be truthful, accurate, complete, and demonstrative.

Summation

In conclusion, the contract management process entails forging and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. It requires thorough research and planning, sound contract formation, cooperative contract execution, and prompt and attentive contract closeout. In order for contract managers to do that work effectively, they must know laws, regulations, and policies, industries and markets, business principles, procedures, and techniques, and be effective communicators.



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Vern,

You devote many words to defining "contract" and you defined "contract management," but I did not see where you defined "contract manager." In my experience that term means different things to different people. The government has a notion of what it means and contractors have their notions. I'd like to see the same rigor you bring to walking through "contract" applied to "contract manager." It has to be more than "one who manages a contract" or "one who engages in contract management."

Indeed, you spend a lot of time defining the tasks of contract management and the skillset required to perform contract management. You even distinguish between a contract manager and administrative or clerical staff. Please come right out and tell us the definition of "contract manager."

Also, as you went through the tasks and required skills, my heart sank. I've never met anybody who had all those skills in one package. At least, I never met anybody who had all those skills, knew all those subjects, and who called themselves a "contract manager."

Thanks for writing this --- excellent piece to get my thoughts going on a weekend afternoon.

H2H

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Vern,

I think it's very good. Some suggestions:

1. Under "What is Contract Management" you introduce the term "contracting process" and the word "contracting." Is "contract management" synonymous with "contracting"? If so, I think you should say that and introduce the FAR definition of "contracting." If the two are not synonymous, what is the distinction between the two?

2. I think that you should acknowledge that the term "contract management" is used in a much narrower sense in the FAR. Given that the title of Subchapter G of the FAR is "Contract Management", it seems to refer more to contract administration.

3. Under "Contract Formation", you use the term "contracting officer." I think you should explain that this term (as well as "contract specialist", "contract administrator", "contract negotiator", etc.) is used by the Government to refer to its contract managers.

4. I don't think "Contract Closeout" is worthy of a distinct phase. I think one is still in the "Contract Execution" phase when performing contract closeout tasks. Although the contract is physically complete, the parties are still executing the administrative requirements of the contract.

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Don:

Agree completely with 1 through 3 and I will work on the changes. I need to think about 4. I believe that closeout is probably less significant in the commercial sector, but in the public sector I think it's important and neglected. Give me some time to ponder.

Vern

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Vern thanks for the write up. Does the below excerpt, describing the ideal Government to Contractor relationship, actually occur in a sole source environment? I am afraid I am becoming exceedingly cynical, to the point I am losing sight of how my relationship with the contractor should be.

While there will often be some tension between buyers and sellers, especially under fixed-price contracts, the parties should try to meet on common ground, and to create common ground when necessary, in order to make their relationship as productive as possible and to prevent it from becoming a zero-sum game. The contract execution phase should not be a period in which the parties race to see who comes out best. The goal should be to reach the finish line at the same time through honesty, mutual respect, cooperation, good faith, and fair dealing.

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Reference the section on "The Requisite Skills of the Contract Manager". Since one of the audiences for this work are personnel managers, I might suggest adding some language in the section of what a contract manager is not. For example, I have heard folks both within and outside the profession refer to contract managers as just "shoppers" or "clerks" and not contract professionals with the knowledge, skills and abilities that you do reference in the section. Also I don't see within this section that the contract manager may also be a first or second level supervisor and thus require the knowledge, skills and abilities related to human resources as well as contracting. Just some food for thought - I believe for a first draft it is an excellent document.

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Vern - Just a little confusing with regard to use of "government" including when capitalized and not. Most references seem to be to the Federal sector but then other times not. With intent for wide audience and application includes state/local government it might be good to differentiate. If just intended for the Federal sector side of government so noting would clairfy as well.

First rate document.

Carl

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Yes, amthomf, many sole source contracts are mutually rewarding and free of tension and of serious conflicts and disputes. It all depends on the parties and the circumstances.

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