Industry, agencies talk small business obstacles

Programs aimed at cutting through the weeds of the procurement process can help, but many small vendors feel other federal efforts are stacked against them.

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Federal contracting and acquisition officials see small businesses as the backbone of the economy and as stalwart, sought-after contractors, but getting such firms better access to the federal marketplace remains a work in progress.

Federal officials at ACT-IAC's 2014 Small Business Conference in Washington on April 24 said more needs to be done both to keep small businesses in the fold and to make it easier for them to operate once in.

Keynote speakers Natalia Olson-Urtecho, regional administrator at the Small Business Administration, and Denise Turner Roth, General Services Administration deputy administrator, said their agencies are working to cut through some of the in-the-weeds processes that can deter small businesses from pitching to the federal government.

Roth said GSA's nascent 18F technology incubator could help cut through some of the traditional, sometimes tedious, acquisition processes. GSA's in-house IT development start up manned by Presidential Innovation Fellows has rolled out several pilot apps that look to streamline previously intimidating processes.

Its FBOpen pilot app seeks to make it easier for small businesses to search the vast content of the government's Federal Business Opportunities site. Another recently-unveiled 18F project is a "pizza tracker" app pilot program that can provide immediate status updates for the agency's System for Awards Management.

"18F is very exciting," said Roth. "It's a way to use technology and data together to make us smarter." Data on purchasing and contracting can be brought together in the incubator and forged into new ways to evaluate data that in turn could affect policies and improve processes, she said.

But new projects like 18F can bump up against other government efforts, according to panelists at the conference.

For instance, the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative, the government's mandate to leverage its bulk purchasing power to reduce costs and improve overall performance, has been "controversial," said Sandra Broadnax, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's small business programs office. Some critics have said FSSI could push small businesses out of the running for federal projects because they fear they cannot compete with larger companies offering broader bulk discounts – a perception that is simply wrong, according to Broadnax, Roth and other federal agency representatives at the conference.

Roth said 76 percent of the latest FSSI-driven blanket contract for office supplies, OS2, went to small businesses.

And even with FSSI efforts moving forward, some agencies are seeing an increase in small business contracts.

Of the 14,000 companies that did business with the Department of Homeland Security in fiscal 2013, said Kevin Boshears, director of DHS's office of small business and disadvantaged business utilization staff, 10,000 were small firms, with 1,700 of those garnering their first DHS contract.

Yet federal experts said some older rules are indeed hobbling the government's ability to buy the latest technology, from firms both large and small.

For instance, "past performance" regulations requiring vendors to have a years-long selling and performance history can put the government at a disadvantage in buying ever-evolving IT solutions.

"I think we may be missing an opportunity with IT businesses with past performance rules," said Kay Ely, director of Schedule 70, Office of Integrated Technology Services, at the GSA's Federal Acquisition Service. The rules make it difficult for the government to tap into the fast-moving IT world, she said. "We've got to do better."

Small businesses can help themselves, federal acquisition officials said, by simply not ignoring requests for information (RFIs) sent out by federal agencies looking for input. No matter if the turnaround deadline for a response is short, or there's a perception the RFI is aimed at a specific company, it's best to respond. This echoed a point made by Maj. Gen. Wendy Masiello, who as been nominated to head the Defense Contract Management Agency, at an April 18 AFCEA event.

Boshears and other speakers said RFIs might be an agency's way of seeking out small businesses to fulfill their requirements or test the waters to see if there is a potential supplier.

If agencies want to use a specific vendor for a particular project, said Broadnax, they can simply do it without issuing an RFI.

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