4 Types of Government Contracts and What They Entail

Government contracts generally fall into a few different categories, each of which involves different requirements and varying risk to the contractor. Understanding the type of government contract you're competing for will give you a better sense of what to expect; the risk involved and how to execute a more compelling and competitive proposal. To aid your efforts, we've laid out the top four most common types of government contracts and what they entail.

1. Fixed-Price Contracts

Fixed-Price contracts are just that — they ask contractors to submit a bid to complete a project under a predetermined price (and often within the bounds of a target price). They are not subject to any type of adjustment unless certain provisions (such as changes in the contract, pricing, or defective pricing) are included in the original agreement. Contract price can sometimes be renegotiated through different contract clauses (depending on the variety of Fixed-Price contract in question), but these bids will be low-risk if the government and contractor carefully communicate on a reasonable price. The risk inherent to Fixed-Price contracts will increase if deliverables, standards and other measures are unclear or if the contractor must execute custom development with a yet-to-be completed solution. All federal agencies use Fixed-Price contracts and they're the most common type of contract requested at a state and local level.

In Fixed-Price contracts, the contractor is paid a set fee for their goods or services, regardless of incurred costs. Accurately planning and forecasting your expenditure (in terms of time, available personnel, expertise and capital) is absolutely vital to ensuring that you see a positive return on your investment once you've won the bid. While some degree of risk may be present, these contracts provide great profit opportunities for successful contracts that are well executed.

2. Cost-Reimbursement and Cost-Plus Contracts

These types of contracts allow a contractor to seek reimbursement for incurred costs, up to a prescribed allowance. Usually, costs will be estimated upfront to establish a ceiling that a contractor cannot exceed without first gaining approval. As long as incurred costs do not exceed the stipulated maximum, a contractor can seek reimbursement for any justified expenses as they fulfill the contract.

These types of contracts are used when there are uncertainties or contingencies involved in a proposal that cannot be estimated upfront with complete accuracy. Agencies that use this type of government contract include the Federal Transit Administration, National Weather Services and U.S. Department of Defense.

Cost-Plus contracts are often more concerned with the final quality of a project rather than the cost. For example a project in support of United States space and satellite programs. Because there is less built-in incentive to be efficient, these types of contracts usually require closer oversight to ensure maximum efficiency and thrift. The contract itself can be supplemented with additional award or incentive fees to help encourage efficiency, but designing and implementing these programs also requires additional contract administration. While these contracts are often lower risk than Fixed-Price contracts, the profit margins may also be lower and bidding requires that you offer competitive pricing (i.e. low rates) in order to win.

3. Time-and-Materials Contracts (T&M)

Time-and-Materials contracts are a cross between Fixed-Price and Cost-Reimbursement contracts and often require the government to shoulder more risk than the contractor (making them a less popular option for government agencies). Like Cost-Reimbursement and Cost-Plus contracts, T&M contracts are only used when it's not possible to nail down an accurate cost or timeline estimate for a project at the time when a proposal is submitted. The government is basically paying for your services by the hour, including your fees and profit, so competitive pricing is key to winning and net profits are often (but not always) lower.

4. Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) Contracts

IDIQ contracts are often used to supplement or amend Fixed-Price or Cost-Reimbursement contracts in order to provide flexibility with regard to specific supplies, services or aspects of a project required by the government. In contrast to other contract types, IDIQs allow the government contracting agency to "down select" multiple entities that will compete for future break-out contracts (often called "task orders") under the umbrella of the main contract. This results in the contracting agency receiving bids from the pool of awardees for each follow-up task order, which theoretically provides them with the best possible value, flexibility and service. It also streamlines the process for issuing, awarding and executing task orders in the event of a national emergency.

The umbrella, or main contract, usually runs for a period of five to ten years, during which time the individual task orders are announced on an as-needed basis. Typical response times required for down selected entities range from a few days to a month or more, depending on the urgency of the requirement. In extreme cases, the government can ask for a response on the very same day a task order is issued. These responses are purely pricing requests for vendor equipment to aid first responders in a natural or man-made disaster, such as supplying temporary lighting and generators.

IDIQs often specify that a contractor supply a minimum quantity of suppliers and services and agree to a fixed timeline and maximum price ceiling for the contract tasks. They also ask contractors to identify a few different consultants and suppliers that they might leverage for a task and submit these names as part of the initial bid. This can help the government streamline the contracting process by limiting their decision process to a few pre-approved options for each task.

Awards are given out in base year period intervals for each task order (usually 1 – 5 years) and are eligible for renewal after the base period concludes. At the time of renewal, each task order can be “re-competed” for by the incumbent contractor and those previously down selected under the umbrella contract. For contract renewals, responding to specific task orders is not required.


Within each of the four contract categories above, there's yet more iterations and forms that a contract can take. The key to creating a successful proposal is understanding the unique requirements of the contract you're competing for and making sure that your proposed solution, timeline and execution process fits the bill.

When it comes to tackling the complexity of different government contracts, you don't have to go it alone. Our experienced proposal consultant partners like CP2S can lend their expertise to help your organization execute and win more government contracts.