SBA to focus on women’s centers

Lawmakers are frustrated by SBA’s lack of progress in meeting 5 percent goal

SBA faulted for IT deficit

The Small Business Administration has not been using information technology effectively to support its program for woman-owned small businesses in federal contracting, federal auditors found.

Debra Ritt, SBA’s assistant inspector general for auditing, said a review of the agency’s woman-owned small-business program
practices showed that the agency rejected
payment requests and applications simply
because they contained small errors. Ritt said SBA should automate its payment request and application processes. For example, for other grant programs, SBA posts electronic forms
on the agency’s Web site and has applicants
fill them online and mail their signatures to
SBA.

William Shear, director of financial markets and community investment at the Government Accountability Office, said something as simple as using a Web application could help the SBA-supported women’s business centers keep in contact with the agency.

— Matthew Weigelt

Small Business Administration officials say they intend to improve programs for helping women who own small businesses to win more federal contracts. Agencies awarded only 3.2 percent of federal contracting dollars to woman-owned small businesses in fiscal 2005.

Anoop Prakash, associate administrator of SBA’s Office of Entrepreneurial Development, said that in the next two months, SBA will rewrite its announcements about programs that give financial support to women’s business centers. SBA will publish the new announcements and give business centers 30 days to apply for SBA funding.

SBA’s woman-owned small-business program supports women’s business centers, which help women who own small businesses learn about available federal contracts and meet people in the federal contracting community. Last year, more than 129,000 woman-owned small business received assistance from the 98 centers that SBA supports, agency officials said.

Prakash also said SBA must speed its process of reviewing applications from woman-owned small businesses. “Give us 30 days, lock people in a room, have them read every application and score it there on the spot,” he said, suggesting the urgent necessity of improving SBA’s track record. Prakash testified to members of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee Sept. 20.

Lawmakers said SBA needs to pay more attention to its woman-owned small-business programs. For instance, in 2005, agencies ended up nearly 2 percent short of a mandatory goal of awarding 5 percent of prime contracting dollars to woman-owned small businesses.

Specifically, agencies sent those businesses $10.2 billion out of
$320 billion for which small businesses were eligible.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee’s chairman, said too much emphasis on bureaucratic red tape has reduced the effectiveness of SBA’s women’s business centers.

SBA compounds problems by making late grants payments, said Debra Ritt, the agency’s assistant inspector general for auditing. Ritt said poor coordination and a lack of communication between the agency’s offices contribute to the delayed payments.

Those delays and other problems “display a complacency or a disregard for the value of those programs and women entrepreneurs,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), ranking member of the committee. “There’s just a general feeling that there’s a disconnect between SBA and women’s business centers.”

SBA said inadequate funding from Congress is partly to blame for problems in the agency’s woman-owned small-business programs. SBA received about $12 million in fiscal 2007 and made awards to women’s business centers in amounts ranging from $90,000 to $150,000, according to the Government Accountability Office. But until SBA is funded for 2008, officials said, they can’t disburse additional grant money. By law, SBA can’t make any awards ahead of a program’s funding.

Congress has failed so far this year to pass any appropriations bills, which leaves SBA in limbo. In years past, the agency received varied amounts of funding for the woman-owned small-business program. This year, SBA officials, said they will wait until they know for certain how much money the agency will receive before they inform the women’s business centers about available grant money.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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