Making noise for small business

Small-business advocates seek to change the government’s contracting culture from within

The Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization sounds more bureaucratic than practical — especially when referred to by its acronym OSDBU or “oz-duh-boo.”

Although the Defense Department has changed the name of its organization to the Office of Small Business Programs, the term OSDBU has stuck at many agencies. And if the offices’ directors have their way, the term will become increasingly familiar to their agencies’ program managers and contracting officers.

The goal is to change the way procurement leaders think about the role of small businesses. In one case, at least, that involves handing out statues of ducks.

“The OSDBUs are a very vocal group,” said Robert Burton, former deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. That’s a necessary trait for them to fulfill their role of advocating for small businesses, he added.

Their challenge is to go beyond reminding people about contracting rules and regulations and instill new attitudes in an entrenched government culture.

Contracting officers typically understand regulations about small-business set-aside contracts and might be aware of contracting goals, said Teresa Lewis, director of the Treasury Department’s OSDBU. But program managers — who are central players in acquisitions — are accustomed to a certain way of working, she said.

The way they often see it, their existing contractors understand their needs and expectations, so they question why they should give that up for a small-business contract, Lewis said. But the OSDBU directors try to convince them of the value of giving work to small businesses and, if needed, remind them that regulations require it.

“The job certainly has it challenges,” said Kevin Boshears, OSDBU director at the Homeland Security Department.

One problem is that OSDBUs often get little support within their agencies, said Theresa Alvillar-Speake, OSDBU director at the Energy Department.

That’s where the OSDBU Directors Interagency Council comes in.

OSDBU directors and small-business specialists started the council on their own initiative. Although it can’t make policy, it has become a forum for sharing ideas and talking about new ways of working with small businesses.

“It’s the good old OSDBU network,” Alvillar-Speake said. “We get together and commiserate and share.”

Signs of progress
Small-business contracting still doesn’t receive the same amount of attention that other initiatives do, but agency leaders are recognizing its importance, observers say.

In 2007, the Small Business Administration published its first Small Business Procurement Score Card, which graded agencies on how many of their contracting dollars went to small businesses in various socioeconomic classes. Half of the 24 agencies graded earned the lowest score because they didn’t award enough dollars to small companies.

After SBA announced the scores, agency executives began asking about the contracting goals. Several OSDBU directors — including Lewis and Jeanette Brown, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s OSDBU — now report directly to the agency’s secretary as the chief adviser on small-business matters.

“Typically, if it flows down from the top, it’s going to have a more positive impact,” said Anthony Martoccia, director of the Office of Small Business Programs at DOD. He reports to the Defense secretary.

Brown said she gained support from her agency’s leaders when Marcus Peacock, EPA’s deputy administrator, added small-business procurement goals to program managers’ performance measures. She even began giving regional offices and program managers who meet their goals an award in the form of a crystal duck.

As the small-business goals become more prominent for acquisition planners, OSDBU directors have offered their expertise to contracting officers and program managers.

“They don’t live it and breathe it every day so they don’t understand the intricacies,” said Debbie Ridgely, OSDBU director at the Health and Human Services Department.

In part because of the growing interest in regulatory changes related to small businesses, OSDBU directors have been included in discussions in which the acquisition officers and program managers are planning future contracts. And more than one agency requires that the OSDBU be part of early discussions.

For example, DOE’s regulations stipulate that acquisition-planning teams give the OSDBU director an opportunity to review upcoming programs to determine whether any of the work could go to small businesses. The director must sign off on the strategy for it to move to the next stage of the process.
“We back them in,” Alvillar-Speake said. “They kind of listen then.”

Officials who issue governmentwide procurement policies have also given more authority to OSDBUs. Burton said one of the most prominent efforts on behalf of small businesses was OFPP’s policy to require an agency to get its OSDBU to approve strategic sourcing plans.

“You must ensure that the OSDBU had input into it,” he said. It puts small-business considerations at the top of procurement officials’ agendas as they enter into long-term contracts with vendors. 

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