White House wants to open channels for small businesses

Friday - 9/30/2011, 5:19am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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A new website will try to close the long-standing communications gap between agencies and small businesses.

The White House will launch BusinessUSA.gov before the end of the calendar year in an effort to make it easier for small firms to find all the services the government offers.

"It will be an online portal that will connect people to all of the programs and resources in an actual and intuitive way," said Ari Matusiak, the executive director of the White House Business Council, during a panel discussion at the 29th Annual Minority Enterprise Development (MED) Week in Washington. "There are a lot of great websites out there, government websites. There are some that are less good. But there are, all told, a ton of them. It's very hard to know that this specific program is for you if you've never heard of it before. You don't necessarily know what the name means and if it applies to you."

BusinessUSA.gov will be an online portal for small firms to get access to programs and resources and have questions answered all in real time.

The site seems to replace or at least borrow the idea of Business.gov, which started out as the business gateway project under the Bush administration's e-government initiatives in 2001. The Small Business Administration integrated the site into its SBA.gov site.

Matusiak said BusinessUSA.gov is something small businesses had called for during the administration's townhall meetings over the last two years.

As part of the development of the jobs proposal the White House released a few weeks ago, the administration, including the Commerce Department's Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) and the Small Business Administration, held more than 330 meetings with 6,000-to-7,000 business leaders, Matusiak said. The meetings were in small groups of 15-to-25 people where officials asked about needs and challenges to improve the business climate.

He said the three biggest complaints or challenges they heard were:

  • Access to capital
  • Finding qualified workers
  • The tough regulatory environment.
"We are launching an online business forum that will be up in the next couple of weeks and that will be a place where you all can go and continue the conversation with us about what you are hearing and about what you need and how we can be responsive to you," Matusiak said.

One-stop shopping

Along with BusinessUSA.gov and the online forum, agencies are using technology to reach small firms in other ways.

David Hinson, the director of MBDA, said two portals, CommerceConnect.gov and SelectUSA.gov, let business users find all the information they need in one place or call one number to get their questions answered.

Hinson said MBDA, SBA and others are looking at co-locating agency staff in the same office.

"It is an easy way to provide a sense of one-stop shopping for the taxpayer," Hinson said. "Certainly it's a way we are using to reduce our operating costs. But it depends on the particular area. In some instances, co-locating in not a good idea and in some instances it is. We are not approaching this as one-size-fits all. We really are tailoring it to the needs of the taxpayer."

He pointed to a few examples, such as MBDA centers co-locating with the International Trade Administration centers. SBA also shares some offices with ITA.

Additionally, SBA announced last week awardees under a new grant program to help small businesses work together to compete for federal contracts.

The Small Business Teaming Pilot program gave grants of between $200,000 and $500,000 to 11 companies, who will help small firms find others interested in teaming to bid on contracts.

The grantees, which included the National 8(a) Association, Raytheon, the Urban League of Rochester, N.Y. and several others, will provide training, counseling and mentoring services.

The administration is also trying to push agencies internally to make small-business contracting a bigger priority.

As part of its jobs proposal, the White House recently asked agencies to pay small business contractors in 15 days, rather than 30.

New push but missed goals

The administration, along with SBA and MBDA, also formed an accountability partnership to oversee how agencies are meeting their small business goals.

Gene Sperling, the national economic council director in the White House, said Valerie Jarrett is leading the meetings and holding agencies accountable.

Cabinet secretaries must meet with senior contracting officials to make clear small business contracting is a top level priority, he added.

"Since March, 22 Cabinet and Senate confirmed officials and 7,000 small business owners have participated in 20 small business matchmaking events. This has included Secretary of Energy [Steven] Chu, our secretary of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and other top cabinet officials," Sperling said. "We also asked agencies to hold senior staff accountable by including small business and socioeconomic contracting goals in their performance evaluations."