Small firms 'stiffed' on subcontracts, survey says

Small professional services and IT companies often help prime contractors prepare contract bids but then not receive the expected benefits of business—a result that can come back to haunt agencies.

Nearly a third of 740 small firms said large prime contractors have “stiffed” them out of subcontracting opportunities even after they’ve been listed as a team member on a contract proposal, says an American Express OPEN survey. The survey, released June 19, asked about government subcontracting and teaming arrangements. This is the third of four summaries based on the second annual survey of small companies.

Dona Storey, American Express OPEN advisor on procurement, said agencies will notice the effects of overlooked subcontracts on their report cards. Each agency has a small-business report card, which ranks them on how closely they hit their contracting goals. While there are no consequences for missing the goals, it looks bad for the agency, for the agency’s leadership, and the agency’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

Small companies can help the lead company craft the proposal to meet an agency’s needs. In the proposal, the prime contractor lists its plans for subcontractors that can provide expertise and help with the work after award. Yet 29 percent of small businesses said it hasn’t panned out for them in the past.

Obviously, with more time in the field, the problem is bound to strike. Nearly one in four small companies with at least a decade of procurement experience has been stiffed in the past. For companies with three years or less of experience, 17 percent said they’ve missed out on business and 31 percent of companies with between four and nine years of experience has dealt with it.

More specifically, the survey found this likely to happen most into two industries. Forty percent of companies in the information industry, such as software and data processing, and 63 percent of companies in the professional/scientific/technical services, such as computer system design, engineering, and research fields, said they’ve been frozen out of anticipated business.

And it happens to everyone—no matter the ownership. There is no difference in the likelihood of it occurring by either gender or ethnicity.

“So women- and minority-owned firms are no more likely to be left holding the short end of the procurement stick,” the survey reports.

All the while, there may be a justifiable reason for opting against a subcontract. The prime contractor may be able to handle the work itself, having the expertise and resources in-house. The prime contractor might be able to do it faster than going through a subcontractor. It may even get it done less expensively—a benefit for today's cash-strapped agencies, said Ray Bjorklund, vice president and chief knowledge officer at Deltek.

At the same time, the agency may not be getting all that it negotiated for, if the small businesses on the lower tiers are overlooked, he said. Officials would have the perception that all the team members would play their part. The set-aside subcontracts can help in agencies’ efforts to support small, disadvantaged businesses.

“The government may not be getting what it bargained for,” Bjorklund said.

But responsibility rests on the agencies too, in that officials should be keeping an eye on subcontracts.

"Agencies have to monitor and track the prime contractor’s performance to make sure they adhere to their subcontracting plan. Although this may be a priority for agencies, their acquisition workforce is understaffed and may lack resources," Storey said. 

On a positive note in the survey, 22 percent of active small firm contractors said they have received other subcontracts after being recommended to a large prime contractor by another prime business partner they have worked with previously.

The survey found it more likely to happen to larger, more experienced small companies, as well as those in the information and professional/scientific/technical services industries.

However, companies are more likely to get stiffed on subcontracts than get referrals, the survey found.

American Express OPEN surveyed 740 small business owners in an online survey launched briefly in mid-August, then continued from Oct. 10, 2011 through Nov. 4, 2011.

About the Author

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


  • FCW Perspectives
    remote workers (elenabsl/

    Post-pandemic IT leadership

    The rush to maximum telework did more than showcase the importance of IT -- it also forced them to rethink their own operations.

  • Management
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    Where does the TMF Board go from here?

    With a $1 billion cash infusion, relaxed repayment guidelines and a surge in proposals from federal agencies, questions have been raised about whether the board overseeing the Technology Modernization Fund has been scaled to cope with its newfound popularity.

Stay Connected