Navigating Federal Contracting Is Doable

October 9, 2015
By Sandra Jontz
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Experts offer small businesses tips to writing a winning contract

Breaking into the federal marketplace presents daunting challenges for small businesses, so panelists with inside know-how have offered tips to help smooth the arduous path for a business shot at government spending.

Hire talented proposal writers, learn the federal process, reach out to contracting officers for legitimate concerns and take advantage of agency small business directors, advised a panel of four experts.

Small business leaders must also invest time to draft and submit the otherwise burdensome requests for information, or RFIs, a process some said must fall into “a black hole” since rarely do they see any results.

But the RFIs provide federal contracting officers with valuable market research, shared Erv Koehler, a regional commissioner for the U.S. General Services Administration. “If you’re not presenting an RFI, you’re making a mistake,” Koehler said Thursday at the second in a series of courses about winning contracts with federal agencies, presented by AFCEA International Small Business Programs and sponsored by Karthik Consulting.

Be mindful of the limited time and staff in federal contracting offices, they said. The federal work force was hit by shrinking budget and staff reductions too, meaning they must process the same amount of work, if not more, with fewer people, offered Keith Nakasone, senior procurement executive, SES at the Federal Communications Commission. Proposals must be concise yet detailed enough to show best practices, a business history of performance and possible cost savings. “We don’t want the marketing jargon,” he said. “We want to know your capabilities, how you did something.”

Along those same lines, businesses should refrain from parroting wording from an agency’s request for proposal in hopes that using the correct buzz words, their proposals will get noticed, the panelists advised.  

Small businesses might consider hiring personnel who truly understand government contracting, especially if they aim to break into the prime contractor level, offered Jeff Parsons, chief operating officer at AECOM Global Support Services.  

In fiscal 2014, the U.S. government invested $440 billion on procurements, with more than $280 billion of that from the Defense Department alone. The Small Business Administration, established in 1953, governs what are called small business set-asides that seek to foster a healthy industrial base, create jobs and facilitate greater competition.

Earlier this year, the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland released a report  of its analysis of the Defense Department’s implementation of small business set-asides. The program, though successful when focused on innovation, otherwise appears to be arbitrarily set and does not tend to promote growth of small businesses, the study concluded.

Last year marked the first time that the department exceeded goals for small business contracting, a result of an increased focus on programs, the Better Buying Initiative and the fact that the performance appraisals of senior executive service reflected whether they met small business goals. “There has been a great deal of emphasis placed on meeting the goal, and hopefully it wasn’t achieved at the expense of mission performance,” reads a portion of the center’s report. “However, no one we interviewed understood the rationale or methodology for developing the goals, or whether one even existed.”

Contrasting the goals of SBA programs to help small businesses, the set asides can create a “perverse incentive not to grow,” the report states. The unintended consequence revealed that “small businesses often choose to limit growth and remain small to avoid disqualifying themselves for small business set-asides and thus, become dependent on the subsidized federal contracts to survive,” the report states. “As a result, firms frequently do not graduate, negating one of the primary goals.”

The report prompted some federal contracting officers to investigate the finding and ponder initiatives that might help level the playing field for new mid-sized companies that must compete against giant contracting firms for federal dollars, Harry Hallock, deputy assistant secretary for procurement for the Army, told course attendees.

But the issue also made a debut on the political stage, as some large companies lobby lawmakers to quash efforts that might provide advantages to medium-sized business now competing for the same dollars.

Federal contracting officers understand and appreciate how difficult the process and can be, and in spite of the rumors, small business representatives can speak with them, Hallock said. “You can always talk to the contraction officer if you have a serious issue.”

An emerging trend in the federal contracting world follows the GSA’s One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services, or OASIS, small business multiple award, indefinite delivery indefinite quantity contracts that provide flexible and innovative solutions for complex professional services. The measure leverages the GSA’s better buying power for cost savings. “Why create something new if another agency already has the expertise,” Hallock asked.

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