SBA considering mandating set-asides on multiple award contracts

NEW YORK CITY--The federal government finally could reach its goal of awarding 23 percent of all contract dollars to small businesses by allowing, and possibly mandating, agencies to set aside orders against the General Services Administration's Multiple Awards Schedule and other indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contracts, according to a senior Small Business Administration official.

Currently, agencies are not required to, and they often are discouraged from setting aside small businesses task and delivery orders that are placed against multiple award contracts. But the Small Business Jobs Act, signed by President Obama in September 2010 instructs SBA and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to develop guidance that would reverse that policy.

To further its policy deliberations, SBA met with hundreds of small business owners on Wednesday in Manhattan as part of its Small Business Jobs Act tour. The event, one of 13 scheduled in locations across the country in March and April, is designed to provide the public with information about the provisions in the legislation, including 19 focused on contracting.

Arguably the most important, and potentially difficult to implement, provision would dramatically alter how agencies use the GSA schedules and IDIQ contract vehicles, which now represent 28 percent of the federal procurement marketplace. In 1990, IDIQs represented just 14 percent of the total contracting dollars spent by agencies.

SBA and OFPP have held five outreach events in recent months seeking feedback from the public on the best way to implement this provision. The crux of the issue, according to Joe Jordan, associate administrator for government contracting and business development at SBA, is whether to mandate small business set-asides on multiple award and IDIQ contracts, or to allow agencies the discretion to use them.

"We need to get the 'shall' versus 'may' language right," he said.

SBA's decision could make the difference in whether the government finally meets its small business contracting goals. In fiscal 2009, small businesses won 21.9 percent of all small business contract dollars, amounting to $96.8 billion. To meet its 23 percent goal, agencies would have to spend roughly $5 billion more on small businesses, Jordan said.

Mandating small business set-asides could push agencies over that threshold. About $40 billion in contracts was awarded last year off GSA's Multiple Awards Schedule, and another $150 billion was spent governmentwide through IDIQ contracts.

But the Obama administration also is weighing whether a mandate would discourage agencies from using these contracts, particularly the GSA Schedules. One possible solution, Jordan said, is developing a hybrid solution in which agencies could be required to set aside task-and-delivery orders if they do not meet their small business goals. The agencies that are meeting those goals then would be allowed, but not forced, to use the set-asides.

"The question is how to make this happen without taking away from the speed and efficiency," he said.

The jobs act also establishes a mentor-protégé program to assist small businesses owned by women, service-disabled veterans and those operating in Historically Underutilized Business Zones in competing for contract opportunities. The initiative would be modeled after the 8(a) mentor-protégé program and also take into account the staffing and resources SBA has devoted for these programs, Jordan said.

But these new joint ventures bring possible perils, including opening the door for mammoth contractors, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., to begin winning a high percentage of contracts that are intended for small businesses.

"How do we balance that?" Jordan asked. "These can't be pass-throughs. We can't let companies play that way."

SBA expects to submit a proposed rule creating the mentor-protégé programs by the end of May.

Other job act contracting provisions include:

  • Requiring OFPP to establish a governmentwide policy for contract bundling -- a process in which several small contracts are consolidated and awarded to one firm, often out of the reach of small businesses. (Before bundling a contract, procurement officials would be required to conduct market research and to have a senior acquisition official sign off on the decision. The rationale for bundling then would be publicly disclosed, either on a federal database, or on the agency's website. )
  • Establishing a pilot program for collaboration and joint ventures involving small business contractors. (Under the five-year program, $5 million in federal grants will be awarded to nonprofit groups that would then collaborate with small business teams seeking to compete collaboratively for larger procurement contracts. Thus far, 80 to 90 grant proposals have been received, and SBA expects to choose from 10 to 20. Proposals must be received by April 11.)
  • Mandating small businesses to recertify their size status annually. The law also establishes a governmentwide policy for prosecuting companies that fraudulently disclose themselves to be a small business. (The policy would allow an agency to keep the product or services the fraudulent company provided and still sue the business for the entire sum the agency paid through the contract.)
  • Requiring SBA to re-examine its size standards in each of its business categories every five years.
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