The 53% Minority

Monday - 9/22/2008, 2:03pm EDT

The Small Business Administration's senior management team recently flew to Sweden on a boondoggle just when they were needed in Texas to help small businesses hit hard by the Hurricane. President Bush certainly understood the importance of helping those hit the hardest and he was quickly at the site of devastation, but key members of his team, and those with direct responsibility for providing the counsel and help to the small business community, were missing in action.

The SBA management's recent avoidance of accountability reminded me that there was other important SBA business still unaddressed: leveling the playing field for women-owned businesses.

How difficult, I wonder, can it be for good government to produce a plan that would create these opportunities? After all, the SBA managed procurement strategies for other special interest businesses such as HuBZone, Native American and Alaskan firms, and Service Disabled Veterans.

But, even though discussion and congressional hearings have been ongoing for years, the SBA has been unable to create a credible plan for leveling the playing field for women owned businesses. The SBA senior management has, however, found time to travel to Sweden.

Too often, we see political appointees who are more interested in the title, more interested in the photo opportunities, and more interested in attending or speaking at resume-building, domestic or international conferences than in doing the difficult business of the position he or she accepted and swore an oath to advance. We like to talk about good government and accountability, but real accountability means a willingness to do the difficult and often unpopular tasks that your job requires, rather than running off to boondoggle conferences.

There is a pervasive school of thought that believes that with less than 125 days remaining in the current Administration, and with little interest from the Office of Management and Budget or the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in tackling these kinds of long-standing problems, there is no chance to fix the problems facing woman-owned businesses. Certainly, OMB, OFPP and SBA have shown no sense of urgency to attend to this issue.

I'd like to think the agency leadership at OMB and at SBA are solving more pressing problems, but, I am forced to conclude, from OMB's recent rounds of self-congratulatory exit interviews, fluff speaking engagements and the SBA's meaningless conference in Sweden, that solving larger problems is not the a priority.

Could the lack of progress on the issue of women-owned business parity stem from a lack of ideas, a lack of innovation, or a lack of will?

I cannot help OMB or SBA on the lack of will, but I can help them on the issue of ideas. Here's an idea that I proposed back in 2007, when SBA announced their recommendations for women business set asides in four narrow categories, and were facing a hearing with Congressman Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) who questioned the SBA's ineffective recommendations.

The idea is simple.

  • First, acknowledge a universally known truth: in the U.S., women are the 53% minority.
  • Second, create a special pilot set-aside for women-owned businesses. Allow all women-owned businesses with revenues under $3,000,000 to apply as long as they own 51% the company. Do not limit the categories - allow all categories of businesses to apply.
  • Third, conduct the pilot for 3 years.
  • Fourth, empower the small business specialists at each agency to assist in determining which procurement opportunities are to be set-aside. Insist that all agencies follow the law. The FAR is quite specific in its requirements for identifying set aside procurements.
  • Five, trust, but verify that good people, doing good things, will prevail. Ensure that quantifiable metrics for success are established and monitored quarterly. Execute a plan in a process that Peter Drucker termed "SMART": specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, timely.
  • Lastly, document results.

During my time in government, I found that though there are many complex problems, often the solutions are quite simple, but only if there is strong leadership and a willingness to commit to action.

On the issue of parity for women owned business, OMB, OFPP and the SBA have not shown leadership, nor innovation, nor action. The good news is that there is still time for them to act and make a difference.

The real multi-million dollar question is: will OMB, OFPP and the SBA try to solve this problem or are they, even now, busy making plans for the next overseas conference?


Lurita Doan is the former Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration and a former small business owner.