Posted By Guy Timberlake, The American Small Business Coalition, LLC,
Saturday, June 07, 2014
Updated: Saturday, June 07, 2014
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Don't want to know the truth? Don't peek over the fence into your neighbor's yard! The Chief Visionary
Have you ever been curious about a neighbor to the point you wanted to peek over the fence into their backyard? This would be a neighbor with peculiar habits or maybe strange sounds coming from their yard. What would you do if you received an invite a party they were hosting? Would you be compelled to go just to quell your curiosity?
My recent participation in a federal agency event geared to small business opportunities was such an experience. This "neighbor" is an organization I see often, but I don't really know much about them. They invited me to a get-together with some of their associates and colleagues, and I accepted. Why? For one, the theme resonated with me, and also I was just plain curious based on things I had heard from others. It's not the first time I've learned the hard lesson of "If you don't want to know the truth, don't ask." Needless to say, I am still trying to get images out of my head and have tried multiple remedies to alleviate the resulting bitter aftertaste. It's not working.
The federal agency is in the mass transit arena, and the other attendees were a handful of advocacy organizations and some of the prime contractors currently doing business in support of or with this agency. For the discussed opportunities, the host is not the contracting agency, rather their money is pushed to state and local agencies who issue and administer the contracts. However, the federal agency maintains some authority over the primes whom they approve to pursue those requirements. This authority includes small business participation, though it's not regulated under the FAR Small Business Subcontracting Program. One of the surreal and sobering aspects was the dramatic difference in the rules employed (state and local versus federal) and the attitude of the primes related to doing business with Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBE). My key takeaway? These approved prime contractors generally believe they are doing DBE's a favor. In fact, they see it as charity. 'Looking down their noses' does not even come close to describing the prevailing attitude I detected. Plus, the metrics for small business size is very different and far more restrictive than at the federal level.
Let me elaborate. The primary discipline is manufacturing. In federal contracting, manufacturing size standards are based on the number of employees rather than annual revenues. For DBE companies pursuing this work there is a flat revenue-based (and personal wealth) limit that governs their eligibility. That really needs to change.
Not only do I see it as an oppressive environment, it is prohibitive. Everything about doing business in this particular domain is geared to socioeconomic status and not capability or capacity. This absolutely fosters the attitude of the primes which I described previously. Qualifications of the small businesses are intentional after-thoughts based on the program structure, yet they are primary obstacles to those who come knocking. It's a style of doing business that is in stark contrast to my personal and professional beliefs.
The key theme of this activity was finding ways to increase small business participation. I determined the underlying goal is eliminating or at least minimizing the ability for the primes to say, "We could not find DBE's capable of doing the work." The whole time I was thinking about the aptitude of many small businesses supporting the various missions at Defense Logistics Agency and the military services. The standards to which they must adhere has to be equal to if not greater than the standards these transit primes are seeking and using as a barrier to small business participation.
To that end, one of the points raised during this event was on the topic of "major systems" key to successful delivery and a significant area of revenue. The approved prime contractors stated they only buy these systems from their prime contractors, a small and elite club that is not necessarily seeking new members. It was their foregone conclusion that no DBE could possibly develop or implement these systems. So in my infinite wisdom I asked, "When did you last check to see if there were DBE companies capable of providing these systems?"
The silence was deafening.
"The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."