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Statement of Work (SoW) in government contracting: Everything you need to know

Creating a solid statement of work might seem daunting. But follow the right process, and your SoW has the best chance of hitting the mark.
5 min read

Claire Whelan

statement of work in government contracting

A well-written statement of work (SoW) can help minimize risk, delays, and disputes in government contracting. Done right, the SoW should leave no doubts in the reader’s mind about whether a particular task is included in a project. The supplier won’t misprice or under-resource the job, but the SoW is flexible enough to allow changes if needed.

Creating a solid statement of work might seem daunting. But follow the right process, and your SoW has the best chance of hitting the mark.

What is a statement of work?

Simply, a statement of work is a document that describes a project. It includes specifics like who needs the work done and why. It has full project details, including tasks the contractor must complete. The SoW should also explain what the successful project outcome should look like. The request for proposal (RFP) might have an SoW, but the SoW is also included with more detail in the final contract. A good SoW answers the five W’s (plus how):

  • who’s commissioning the work?
  • what is the work?
  • where will the work happen?
  • when should it be finished?
  • why is it needed?
  • how much it will cost?

Notice that the ‘how’ isn’t ‘how to do the work.’ Actually, a good statement of work isn’t that prescriptive. Instead, it gives the supplier some freedom to deliver the results without demanding a particular process. A solid statement of work shouldn’t be a paint-by-numbers list of instructions. But nor should the SoW give the supplier a blank canvas to do whatever they see fit. The SoW needs to hit a happy medium.

Who prepares the statement of work?

Because a strong statement of work strikes a balance between too much guidance and too little, whoever writes it must really know their stuff. When included in the final contract, the SoW may be written in collaboration between the contractor and the agency. The SoW’s authors must understand the capabilities of both parties, and the SoW will specify the responsibilities of each.

A contractor can’t do their best unless the agency provides the information, resources, and access they need. The SoW should specify all of these.

This is an important point. A contractor can’t do their best unless the agency provides the information, resources, and access they need. The SoW should specify all of these.

For example, let’s say a subject matter expert has essential information and insight for the project. The project kick-off date is the 15th, but the expert is away for the next month. Either change the schedule or remove the tasks that require that expert from the SoW. A detailed SoW contains both the schedule and the task list. That means it can reveal dependencies, so all parties can agree on what’s reasonable, before kick-off.

Why is it important to get the SoW right?

Create a well-thought-out statement of work and your project is far more likely to succeed. A solid SoW delivers these benefits:

  1. Makes the selection process better informed. When the statement of work is part of the RFP, the agency can conduct the selection process more efficiently. Agencies can approach prospective contractors who seem to fit the SoW and invite them to bid.
  2. Helps contractors rule out unsuitable RFPs. The detail in the SoW can help bidders avoid contracts that are too high-risk or outside their area of experience. Knowing which RFPs to avoid is vital for suppliers, who need to conserve their energy for the bids that best suit them.
  3. Minimizes risk of undesired results. The SoW clearly communicates the results the agency wants, so there’s less risk that the contractor will stray off target.
  4. Provides a basis for payment. Here, both parties agree on what results the contractor must deliver in order for the agency to authorize payment. The SoW also clearly lays out a fee structure so there are no surprises.
  5. Removes confusion about who does what. A strong SoW clarifies what the supplier does and what the agency does. This means no one is uncertain about their roles or tasks.

How to write a statement of work and what to include

A statement of work that’s fit for purpose should include the following elements:

  1. Introduction: say which agency or department is commissioning the work and why. What’s the business problem that this project aims to solve? Prospective bidders need this context.
  2. Objectives: include fuller detail here on the purpose of the project. What is the ideal final outcome?
  3. Project scope: a general description of the steps and process the supplier will take to achieve the desired outcome. It may include a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) with groups of tasks the supplier must complete. Include all your major deliverables, project phases and milestones. Tasks not listed are outside the project scope – an important safeguard to manage scope creep.
  4. Project location: where will the team and systems be during the project? That includes people, equipment, hardware and software.
  5. Schedule: what are the kickoff and completion dates and major milestones in between?
  6. Deliverables: this is the list of what the supplier needs to deliver, including deadlines. You may want to specify details like size, quantity, color and so forth.
  7. Resources and requirements: does the project require that team members have specific skills or certifications? Is any special equipment needed? Is there risk involved?
  8. Definition of success: what outcome must the supplier achieve before the agency considers the project successful? Remember the needs of major stakeholders, such as people who will use the product or service day-to-day.
  9. Reporting and sign-off: who is responsible in the agency for admin aspects of the project? Who will sign off the project as complete and ready for payment?
  10. Payment: a schedule indicating what fees are payable to the contractor and when. The agency will typically link payments to the delivery schedule.

Key success factors for your statement of work

Is your writing as clear as possible?

Clarity of purpose and unambiguous writing are your friends when creating a statement of work. If the reader can’t easily comprehend what you’ve written, that’s a recipe for failure. We’ve written further on communications that impact the customer experience. The same is true for the person reading your statement of work.

You can read our eight plain language tips here, but in sum, most readers can best understand short sentences that avoid jargon and use simple words. If you write with maximum clarity, it’s easier for time-poor readers to absorb your key points. And it’s very likely that the person reading your statement of work has a long to-do list. So why not make it easier for them?

Have you embraced automation to improve your writing?

Language analysis tools like VT Writer help ensure a consistent, clear writing style both for yourself and for your colleagues. Plus, it uses automation to detect problems like passive voice or long sentences, so editing is faster.

Use VT Writer to scan the draft you’ve written, and get instant feedback, including a score for readability. There are also specific tips on what you can improve, and how. Because it’s an impartial tool based on best practices, all your colleagues get the same feedback. This can reduce pushback from senior colleagues because it’s the software making suggestions.

Have you avoided vague words in your statement of work?

There are so many reasons a project can suffer from scope creep, including a lack of clarity at the scoping phase. By running your SoW through a tool like VT Writer, you’ll catch uses of the passive voice, which could lead to confusion.

“The final software should be tested for ease of use and response times.” Can you see how that sentence is written in the passive voice? Who is doing the testing? That’s a detail you need to specify in the statement of work, or you’re storing up problems for the project.

A clearer statement would be: “a group of end-users and line managers will test the final software for ease of use and response times.” Here, it’s clear who’s doing the task and what success looks like.

A well-planned statement of work reduces project failure

As the Institute of Project Management notes, most project failures occur during the beginning and planning phases. That’s why a well-crafted statement of work is crucial groundwork. Agreed by both parties and full of detail, a solid SoW sets you up for success.

No matter what pressure you may be under, launching a project without an agreed SoW is unwise. One project manager who bowed to that pressure revealed that an extra $45,000 worth of rework was needed because a SoW wasn’t agreed upon at kickoff.

By having a strong statement of work in place, you can begin your project with a clear baseline and minimize the risk of failure or costly rework.