EPA, USDA break through small business contracting barriers

Wednesday - 10/10/2012, 5:00am EDT

(This story is part two of Federal News Radio's special report, The Small Business Dilemma.)

Despite the federal government's less than stellar record of meeting small business contracting goals over the past six years, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department are two of the exceptions.

EPA, USDA and several other agencies have shown that success in awarding prime contracts to small businesses takes an approach that requires top-down oversight and a bottom-up focus.

In part two of Federal News Radio's special report, The Small Business Dilemma, Federal News Radio examines why agencies are successful in meeting or surpassing their small business targets.

EPA is taking a "think small first" strategy to contracting. It exceeded its small business prime contract goal of 42 percent last year, with nearly 70 percent of subcontracts going to small firms.

“We want to go small first and justify going large.”

— Jeanette Brown,
OSDBU, Environmental Protection Agency

"We want to go small first and justify going large," said Jeanette Brown, director of EPA's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

EPA attributes its small business contracting success to efforts to elevate OSDBU's visibility. Brown said she is known as the "small business lady" at her agency.

"People see me as I walk through the agency and will talk to me about [small business contracting] opportunities. The leadership knows, as well as the other staff, pretty much what my role is and how we work in the agency to support and advocate for small businesses," she said.

That visibility comes partly from the agency's organizational structure — Brown is a member of the Senior Executive Service and reports directly to the agency's deputy administrator, as required by the Small Business Act.

At EPA, the role of small business specialists — sprinkled throughout the agency — helps ensure small firms are front-of-mind for program and acquisition offices.

In its regional offices, the small business specialist is part of the acquisition workforce and involved from the beginning in any acquisition forecast. Adrianne Callahan, small business manager for EPA's Region 5 based in the Midwest, said she tries to understand what the project is and determine where small businesses can fit into that project.

"There may be some [small businesses] that can't do it at this time, so it's my job to get the ball rolling. When I'm doing outreach, start talking to these businesses to see what are their capabilities, what are their qualifications, help them understand this is what EPA's priorities are," Callahan said.

Agencies that met small business goal in FY2011:*
Homeland Security
*Goal varies by agency, with 23 percent as the governmentwide goal.

At the Agriculture Department, each of its 11 buying agencies has a small business coordinator or small business specialist, said Joe Ware, the deputy director of OSDBU at USDA.

USDA also involves its small business office in a procurement from the beginning of the process, rather than waiting right before the solicitation, Ware said.

"We've found that to be very, very effective and very helpful both to the agencies and to the small businesses," he said. "It avoids delays at the end of the solicitation cycle and it provides a good set of solid strategies for the agency to work with."

Last year, USDA reached its small business contracting goal with more than 52 percent of prime contracts going to small businesses.

The ability to reach out to small firms is easier at USDA — with field offices throughout the country. The Forest Service, for example, had more than 31,000 contract actions totaling $700 million, with nearly 80 percent awarded to small businesses, Ware said.

Some agencies, however, do not have missions that are as small business- accessible. For example, half of the Energy Department's procurement budget is tied up in contracts with its 17 national laboratories, so those prime contracts cannot go to small firms, said Energy's OSDBU Director Dot Harris.

The labs "technically are our primes for those sites. When we look at our small businesses, it's typically in a subcontracting mode," Harris said.