February 17, 2014

Problems with Source Justifications and Price Analyses? Have You Checked Your Forms for "Look and Feel" and Usability?

By far the biggest two findings for companies going through the CPSR process, inadequate source justifications and price analyses seem to plague even the most developed purchasing systems. The usual remediation steps - training and increased internal pre-award review - are no doubt effective, but it's my opinion that too few companies go to the source of many analysis issues: the forms used to document the evaluation.

Clean, easy to use forms increase compliance. Simple. The harder you make a task (the more confusing/obtuse/overly complicated the form), the greater the chance of mistakes when performing the task. Lack of understanding and frustration breed mistakes, especially on tight deadlines with multiple interested parties applying pressure from all sides. At the end of the day, if your forms aren't helping they're hurting.

So what makes a good form? Here are some tips for reviewing the effectiveness of your forms:

1. Weight Doesn't Equal Compliance. Long forms don't impress auditors unless they contain a lot of useful information. Forms that are needlessly long or unnecessarily complicated may actually irritate the auditor (remember, they have to look at those things over and over for two weeks straight!). A clue that forms are too long and convoluted - people aren't finishing them. When a source justification with 10+ narrative blocks comes back repeatedly with "N/A" in 8 of them, it may be time to look at revising that form.

2. Don't Make People Write What They Can Check Off. Checklists, checklists, checklists. Use them! Source Justifications, Price Analyses, Other-Than-FFP Memos, Commercial Item Determinations, Award Summaries - these forms should be at least 50-50 checklist/narrative.

3. Include Directions In the Form. Work Instructions are great, but people who are in a rush and/or new to a form appreciate inline instructions (especially for narrative requirements). I like to include italicized parentheticals after narrative requests to direct the analyst towards the specific topics that need to be covered in their write-up. 

4. Make the form pretty. Ugly is depressing, isn't it? Contrary to popular belief, files and forms don't have to be dreadful to look at. Does your form look like it was created in 1992? WAS your form actually created in 1992? Jazz it up. Use a version of Microsoft Word made after 1996! Throw in some color! Use graphics! There are many opportunities to enhance the user experience during analysis. Making the forms graphically pleasant will help both the users of the form and the people charged with reviewing them.