A necessary trade-off

The Bush administration appears determined to look out for the interests of small businesses, but more needs to be done.

The latest example is the Energy Department's award of a $409 million task order for information technology services to RS Information Systems Inc. In announcing the deal, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said that making contracting opportunities available to small businesses was one of his top priorities.

The DOE pact represents a big win for RSIS, which is on track to graduate from the Small Business Administration program next month. It's a textbook case of government support enabling a small but innovative company to grow into a long-term provider of products and services.

But small businesses say the textbook case is becoming the exception.

It is true that the administration pushes agencies to set aside a percent of their procurement dollars for small and small, disadvantaged businesses, and agencies across government have included such firms in multiple-award contracts.

But changes in procurement strategies have made good work tougher to come by, some companies say. They are particularly concerned about so-called contract bundling, in which an agency awards an omnibus-style contract to a small number of big companies, asking the prime contractor to assemble the appropriate team.

Agencies generally make a point of asking prime contractors to set aside work for small businesses, but the result, some firms say, has been spotty, with task orders that look more like table scraps.

But contract bundling is not the problem. Indeed, it has proven to be an efficient way to buy IT products and services. Agencies, though, must be held accountable for defining and enforcing small-business requirements.

To say such oversight would slow down procurement is to miss the point. If the federal government is serious about its commitment to small businesses, this is a trade-off the administration can't afford not to make.

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