Letters to the Editor

Small biz critical

A recent letter to the editor of your publication ["Scrap SDB preference," April 19] displayed an unfortunate misunderstanding of small, disadvantaged business (SDB) utilization programs in the federal government. Such misunderstanding was prompt-ed by an editorial by FCW [March 15] in which you suggest that such programs were "social" in nature, thus having nothing to do with what the federal government was in business to do. To the contrary, SDBs are essential, if not critical, to the success of the technical missions of federal agencies.

At agencies such as the departments of Defense and Energy, NASA and the FAA, which have contracts for services in which human lives are often at stake, it would be reckless, if not grossly negligent, to depend on the ingenuity of just one race, one gender or one business size to complete and perform such essential missions. During NASA's successful Mars Path-finder mission, for example, it was an SDB that manufactured the batteries that allowed the spacecraft to transmit information about the planet back to Earth. The SDB not only produced the batteries on schedule and within budget, but the batteries lasted three times longer than the contract called for. In fact, the Mars Pathfinder program was filled with small

minority- and women-owned businesses performing the most high-tech of tasks, and all of them delivered high-quality products on time and within budget. In the words of the lead procurement team official on the project, "We could not have done it without [SDBs]."

Somewhere in outer space sits the Hubble Space Telescope, the most powerful observatory in existence. All servicing missions to the spacecraft must be first practiced on a replica of the complex facility on the ground. The replica was designed, built and is managed by an SDB. In addition, SDBs are delivering crucial hardware and performing sophisticated technical work on the International Space Station and, in many cases, outperforming the large businesses. And there are dozens of other examples. What is important to remember, however, is that none of those examples would exist without the vehicles provided to federal agencies under existing laws and regulations designed to facilitate the use of SDBs.

It is peculiar how one can complain about this when similar measures have traditionally been employed to stimulate the increased federal use of other business entities, almost routinely. For example, when Congress wanted to ensure that domestic products had an advantage over foreign markets in winning federal contracts, it passed the Buy American Act in 1933, in which domestic products still receive 6 to 12 percentage preference points in certain procurements, simply for being of domestic origin. This was done in large part to preserve our nation's domestic mobilization business base. Similarly, when Congress wanted to ensure that a "fair proportion" of federal contract dollars would go to small businesses, it created small-business set-asides in which certain contracts are set aside for competition among small businesses only. That practice has been with us since 1958, when 99.9 percent of the small businesses doing work for the federal government were nonminority.

It is also important to remember that initiatives designed to stimulate the increased federal use of SDBs are not a preference for SDBs. Rather, they are designed in part to overcome a historical pattern of preferences against SDBs. The present-day vestiges of such past discrimination have left SDBs disadvantaged as a group when competing with non-SDBs as a group. A few years ago, the Associated General Contractors of America, a predominately nonminority group, believed they were being discriminated against by Japan when competing for construction contracts there. What did they ask the Japanese government for as a remedy? Contract set-asides for American-owned companies. Was the AGC seeking a preference for such firms or a vehicle to show how well U.S. construction companies could perform?

Reality notwithstanding, past discrimination need not be the launch pad for the justification of affirmative procurement practices with respect to SDBs. After all, SDB utilization programs represent the bright outlook of the future rather than an evil specter of the past. SDBs, like other small businesses, midsize firms and large companies, are essential to the successful performance of our nation's federal missions and goals. All such entities benefit from government-backed "jump starts" in the form of proactive procurement practices that ensure their survival, growth and stability. The maximized utilization of SDBs ensures that the federal government is drawing from the full productive potential of our nation in seeking contractors who provide high-quality goods and services at the lowest reasonable cost. It is a practice that should be encouraged rather than bashed.

Ralph C. Thomas IIIAssociate administrator for Small and Disadvantaged Business UtilizationNASA

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