Commercial companies use activity-based cost management (ABCM) to focus on profitability and revenue growth. ABCM is the complete method of costing, budgeting, and managing costs based on activity drivers. It enhances profitability by aiding decision making, increasing activity efficiency, and improving organizational effectiveness. Despite all these benefits, however, federal government contractors have been reluctant to adopt it.
Why don't government contractors want to realize the same benefits that their commercial counterparts do? Is government contracting different from private sector contracting? As an employee of a defense government contractor for the past 22 years, I have long been asking myself these questions. In fact, my doctoral dissertation sought to find out why government contractors were not adopting ABCM as readily as other commercial organizations. (1)
In this article I review the environment in which government contractors work and discuss the stumbling blocks they face in adopting ABCM. I conclude by describing an accounting approach that can lead to a change in the way costing, contract negotiation, and pricing are done in government contracting, and I encourage government contractors to adopt ABCM.
GOVERNMENT CONTRACTING ENVIRONMENT
Commercial companies have shown that ABCM provides more accurate costs, improves understanding of the economics of production, and gives a better picture of the economics of a company's activities. (2) A major benefit of ABCM is the identification of activities as cost drivers. Traditional cost accounting systems lead to distorted cost allocations for government contractors because management and other overhead costs are allocated to a program/contract as a percentage of the total contract cost base, not by what activities each program/ contract actually uses. There may be activities that one contract does not use, but the contract is allocated costs of those activities just because they are part of the total cost base. In contrast, ABCM results in better and more correct costs because each program/contract is allocated costs based on the activities it actually uses. Identifying the activities that drive costs provides insight, understanding, and solutions for complex organizations to eliminate waste, improve business processes, plan organization and operation strategies, and satisfy customers. (3) ABCM helps companies understand what they do, how well they do it, and what their real costs are, which enables them to focus their marketing efforts on profitable products and services while enhancing organizational objectives. ABCM also allows companies to look closely at their business processes and, thereby, compete more effectively in a global marketplace. In short, ABCM has been shown to be a powerful management tool worth adopting.
Most government contractors have been slow to adopt ABCM concepts even though both the contractors and government know that current cost management systems are distorting costs. Several government agencies have encouraged contractors to develop advanced cost management systems, with little success. The current indirect cost allocation methods used in federal government contracting increase the probability that indirect costs allocated to products and services may camouflage unprofitable and costly programs. Because the government's main objective is to obtain more accurate cost data to enable better procurement decisions, it believes that advanced cost management systems that are highly effective in the commercial world, such as ABCM, offer parallel benefits for both the government and its contractors. By using ABCM, the government contractor would know what its product and service costs are because ABCM focuses on activity costs. This knowledge would allow contractors to establish cost targets and seek production efficiencies and cost reductions. In turn, government agencies would gain knowledge about the real costs of their procured products and services. …