Women legislators seek to increase access to federal contracts

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Advocates for the women’s contracting community are alive and well in Washington. An issue that has limited the success of a program designed to help women access the federal market has taken center stage in both the House and the Senate. Moving forward will require the united voice of the women’s business community and the understanding of where this program came from and where it needs to go. 

Women business owners have thrived since the government began tracking business ownership in 1972. The growth and success of women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) has often relied on approaching and jumping into new markets where they often faced barriers. But, as successful business owners will tell you, you have to go where the business is.  

One such area is the federal procurement market, where opportunities now total more than $500 billion annually. As businesses look to increase revenue, selling goods and services to the federal government – the world’s largest consumer of goods and services – can be lucrative.

But historically, women business owners had only peripheral access to these opportunities, and even then, often only through subcontracting. In an attempt to change this, Congress established a government-wide goal of awarding 5% of federal contracts to WOSBs in 1994. They hoped this effort would galvanize agencies into working with women-owned companies. 

But that effort simmered and government contracting with women-owned businesses grew only marginally. For this reason, Congress established a program to help the contracting community and assist the women’s business community with finding opportunities. Unfortunately, it took more than a decade to implement the program. 

In 2011, 11 years after Congress acted, the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program (“WOSB Procurement Program”) was established to increase access to federal contracts by limiting competition to women-owned firms only. Yet the program came with significant restrictions—restrictions other small business contracting programs did not face. Most notably, awards through the program were capped at $4 million for goods and services contracts, and $6.5 million for manufacturing contracts—making the process of awarding contracts to women-owned business cumbersome  for contracting officers. 

Due to advocacy on behalf of women business owners and the support of two strong women in Congress, Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Congress passed legislation removing those arbitrary award caps in 2013. 

While that was an important step, the limitations did not end there. The program is not open to all categories of industries represented by women; about one-third are included in the WOSB program. This limitation is due to a study from 2007 that looked at under-representation of women-owned businesses in federal contracting by individual industries. 

The SBA looked too narrowly at the study, identifying only a few industries where the government was deficient in buying from women-owned companies, giving us the restriction we face today. 

While it is widely accepted that programs such as the WOSB procurement program need underpinnings that show disparity, the 2007 data is old and outdated. In 2013, Congress called upon the SBA to complete a new study by 2018. 

In the three years since the implementation of the program, the goal of contracting 5% of federal dollars to women-owned businesses still has not been met. Failure to meet this congressional-set goal translates into roughly $4 billion in missed opportunities for WOSBs annually.  Despite SBA’s efforts to educate women business owners and federal acquisition officers in federal agencies on the WOSB program, a mere 1/100th of one percent of federal award dollars has gone to women-owned businesses through the program. Clearly, barriers still exist. 

Heralded as a tool to level the “procurement playing field,” the Program was hardly designed with equity in mind. The WOSB Program remains the only major small business contracting program that does not have sole source authority, an important tool contracting officers use to make contract awards to small businesses.  Every other small business federal contracting program has sole source authority. All we are asking is that we be treated equally, that’s all.

In fact, more than 15% of all contracts designated for small businesses were awarded through sole source contracts.  The inability of the WOSB procurement program to utilize this contracting tool represents a substantial loss to women-owned companies.  Just for a point of reference, that 15% equals roughly $7.8 billion in annual contract awards. Failure to have access to this tool puts the program and the women it seeks to assist at a disadvantage. 

Rather than wallow in the inadequacy of 1/100th of a percent, advocates such as Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) have been busy trying to change it.  Earlier this year, the first step came in the form of an amendment sponsored by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA).  A Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Speier shepherded the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act – a bill that is known in Washington as “a must pass” piece of legislation.  The amendment gives the WOSB procurement program sole source authority.  

It also accelerates the disparity study on which the WOSB program is based by directing the SBA to conduct a new study within two years.  Why wait until 2018 to renew the list of industries underrepresented by women in federal contracting when they were already out of date in 2011? 

Now it is up to the Senate to act. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) has already taken a leadership role, alongside Senators Cantwell and Gillibrand, by introducing the Women’s Small Business Procurement Parity Act (S. 2481). The bill mirrors the amendment that was successful in the House. Women business advocates are busy urging other Senators to join the effort. 

This is the power of advocacy in action—and a good example of how government can help the women’s business community. Making this change will bring better opportunities to women entrepreneurs seeking to compete for federal dollars. Increasing access to such opportunities is critical to continue the vibrant contribution of women business owners to the economy. 

To view the original article please see our magazine titled “Trending Now” Vol 3, Issue 4 by Clicking Here 

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