Agencies, 8(a)s now can negotiate pacts directly

In an effort to make contracting with socially and economically disadvantaged firms more competitive with schedule purchases and indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, the Small Business Administration said last week it will stop acting as the middleman for agencies' 8(a) buys.

Federal agencies may now contract with 8(a) companies directly, rather than having the deals reviewed and approved first by SBA. A pilot program with the Transportation Department demonstrated that eliminating this step reduced the time it took to award sole-source contracts from "several weeks to five days," DOT Secretary Rodney Slater said.

Whether the move will lead to more 8(a) contracts is not clear. "We just think it will be a more user-friendly vehicle," SBA Administrator Aida Alvarez said.

Before Congress changed federal procurement laws in 1994 and 1996, it was often easier for agencies to award sole-source contracts worth up to the limit of $5 million to 8(a) firms than to compete those contracts on the open market. But that situation changed when new procurement rules made it easier to buy from General Services Administration schedule contracts or IDIQ pacts.

Since then, many 8(a) vendors believe, fewer contracting opportunities have been set aside for them, although federal procurement statistics indicate that 8(a) companies performed more contract actions in fiscal 1997 than in fiscal 1994.

Eliminating one bureaucratic step "simplifies things," said John Tolle, a lawyer with Barton, Mountain & Tolle, which represents 8(a) vendors. Tolle said his clients have not complained about the SBA review procedure.

Federal contracting officers, however, have considered the SBA review to be onerous.

"I'm very happy about [the SBA decision] because it gives me another tool to make the 8(a) awards more attractive and more time-feasible," said Trina Porter, socioeconomic business program officer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Although Porter said she could not speak for the others, she said she believes that contracting officers became less interested in using the 8(a) program when they had alternatives.

Calvin Jenkins, deputy to the SBA associate deputy administrator for government contracting and minority enterprise development, said 8(a) firms would benefit from the move because 60 SBA contracting officers nationwide would be able to dedicate their time to training business owners in management, marketing and other skills.

SBA will continue to be involved with 8(a) contracting through its role certifying firms for the program and serving as companies' advocate with agencies, officials said.

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