Doing Business With Congress: It Can Be Done

May 1, 2015
By Sandra Jontz
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Small businesses learn how to leverage knowledge, connections to gain lawmakers' help

The Small Business Administration (SBA) could not fully determine federal agencies’ compliance with spending requirements on programs established to stimulate small business grow and development because most federal agencies surveyed submitted incorrect data, according to a Congressional investigative report.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, found the SBA cannot fully determine if all 11 agencies analyzed met spending requirements for fiscal 2013, citing that nine of the 11 participating agencies failed to follow SBA’s guidance on submitting data on total extramural research and development obligations, the office reported.

“The GAO also found that the SBA did not assess whether the information it collected was adequate to appropriately analyze agencies’ methodology reports. Without such an assessment, the SBA cannot provide Congress with an accurate analysis of how agencies calculate their extramural R&D [research and development],” reads a portion of the investigators’ findings.

Federal agencies are required to support small business research and development projects through the small business innovation research (SBIR) and small business technology transfer (STTR) programs. Of data that can be tracked, federal agencies reportedly awarded more than 156,000 contracts and grants totaling nearly $40 billion through the two programs since their inception in 1982 and 1992, respectively, the GAO stated.

“Federal agencies with budgets of $100 million or more for extramural R&D are required to establish and administer an SBIR program, and federal agencies with budgets of $1 billion or more for extramural R&D are also required to establish and administer an STTR program,” the report outlines. “Currently, 11 agencies participate in the SBIR program, and 5 of these agencies also participate in the STTR program.”

The GAO’s findings in the April report, and many other similar documents, can be critical in helping small business owners who are trying to solicit lawmakers’ help in addressing their struggles, according to one expert. Getting the attention of U.S. Congress boils down to who you know, how to work the connections and how well-prepared small business representatives are.

“Educate the people who are responsible for the outcome and outputs of legislative cycles,” government affairs consultant Barry Levy advised attendees of AFCEA’s Small Business Committee’s workshop on doing business with the federal government. “And believe me folks, they’re looking to be educated.”

Levy offered a word of caution: “If you spend more than 20 percent of your time trying to influence the outcome of the legislative process, you’re a lobbyist, and the law says you have to register as lobbyist at that point.”

Findings by the GAO are “enablers of legislation” and can help lawmakers in crafting bills, such as draft legislation that seeks to tie federal agency leaderships’ salaries and promotions to small business development, according to Levy.

Such reports can also help small businesses makes their case before lawmakers, Levy advised.

When small businesses are unprepared to compete for federal contracts, they add to their existing struggles to generate revenue and turn a profit, and often respond to contract requests without having supporting background information to launch a winning bid, said Ashok Mehan, founder and CEO of FEDMINE.US, a business-to-business service company seeking to bring information, transparency and accountability to the world of government contracts. “Small businesses don’t understand sometimes the terms of contracting with the government and they go with anecdotal information, or are very reactive to opportunities without being fully prepared. Those kinds of things are very burdensome as a company tries to move forward.”

His firm prepares data that can help small businesses “look at where the low hanging fruit is before they focus on anecdotal information,” Mehan offered. “If you’re a janitor, these are the top 10 agencies that buying your products. If you’re an orange seller, well this is what you need to be doing and these are the contacts. You get a better strategic plan in approaching your market.”

Gaining insight on how to best leverage the help of Congress can prove tremendously beneficial, Mehan added. “Congress can help if they have the ability to understand some of the pain points that small businesses have. They’re different and we can educate Congress with everyone’s pain points: construction, janitor, IT, aircraft manufacturing. ... How do you make the connection? That’s a tough thing to do.”

Research is a key first step: Know who your lawmakers are, what committees they sit on and their agendas. Know their chiefs of staff, legislative directors and key staffers, Levy advised. Then get to work preparing the “leave behind” following a meeting on Capitol Hill, a one-page document that surmises small business owners’ wants.

“Learn their legacy,” Levy told the workshop attendees. “They all have a history, and getting your message delivered will be more effective if you understand their history.”

Small businesses also can tap resources, historical knowledge and influence of associations that share their same interest and goals, Levy recommended.

Some issues now before Congress include bundling, or the consolidation of two or more requirements for goods and services previously provided or performed under smaller contracts; reverse auctions, in which the lowest bid wins in the awarding of contracts; and the practice of lowest priced technically acceptable contract awarding.

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