Editorial: A cure for set-aside ills

To avoid overreliance on big systems integrators, the challenge is recognizing the opportunities where small businesses bring a lot to the table.

There’s no doubt that the government’s small-business contracting mandates are a regular source of heartburn for federal procurement officials. Even as they face the prospect of higher goals for small-business contracting overall, many agencies are still struggling to meet their goals for specific groups, such as woman- and veteran-owned businesses.

These small-business requirements, coupled with the ongoing pressure to ensure adequate levels of competition in contracting overall, are part of what make the federal government so alien to procurement professionals coming from the commercial market.

Strangely enough, though, the best antidote to these peculiarities of the federal market is good old-fashioned business savvy.

As reported in last week’s issue of Federal Computer Week (“Making noise for small business”), small-business advocates find that many contracting officers prefer the path of least resistance: Sticking with big systems integrators that already work with their agencies.

These companies have the advantage of offering a wide array of services, making them a logical choice for any number of projects. From that perspective, setting aside work for small businesses feels like a necessary but poor business decision.

But such a perspective ignores the role that small businesses have always played in the government market. Many small firms specialize in niche technologies or services, often picking areas of particular interest to government agencies. They stay in business by developing a depth of expertise not available in many larger companies.

The challenge — this is where the business savvy comes in — is recognizing the opportunities where small businesses bring a lot to the table.

Clearly, some projects will be too large for small companies to consider, while other projects are too basic, providing no edge to specialty firms. However, small-business advocates typically find that numerous programs offer plenty of viable prospects for set-aside contracts. It’s just a matter of recognizing how a particular set of suppliers can meet a given demand.

Meeting those set-aside requirements will never be easy. But procurement officials will have a much easier time of it if they focus on the business challenge, rather than the regulatory stomach ache. 

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