How federal contracting looks to women-owned businesses

A group of 15 trade organizations recently surveyed small, women and minority-owned businesses, in part to measure their participation and readiness to compete ...

A group of 15 trade organizations recently surveyed small, women and minority-owned businesses, in part to measure their participation and readiness to compete for federal contracts. A particular focus was put on the funding coming from the Chips and Science Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. For one view, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Angela Dingle, the CEO of Women Impacting Public Policy.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And briefly, tell us a little bit about women impacting public policy, the WIPP group that you lead. What do you do?   

Angela Dingle Women Impacting Public Policy is one of the leading national, nonpartisan organizations in the country that advocates on behalf of America’s 14 million women owned businesses. Our top policy priorities center around creating more opportunities for women owned businesses to participate in federal contracting. So every year we identify a set of policy priorities. Access to procurement is one that has been on our radar screen for some time. So we do this through both advocacy and through education.   

Tom Temin And access to acquisition by the federal government. That’s a big issue because the government, as you know, you know, has a stated goal of small business contracting every year. And in terms of dollars, a lot of them, a lot of the agencies claim, well, we did better than the 23% or whatever it is. And I think the Biden administration increased that. And yet a smaller number of individual companies are participating and getting those dollars. And so, yes, in one sense, access is improving, but it seems like access is decreasing. What’s your feeling and what kind of policy changes might reverse that, do you think?   

Angela Dingle There are a number of different things that might be causing that. Clearly, the pandemic and the fallout associated with that had an impact on businesses of all sizes that did business, that do business with the federal government specifically as it relates to women owned businesses, which is where, you know, our sweet spot sits. One of the things that we’ve uncovered is that 75% of the women owned businesses surveyed reported that corporate and government contracting is really critical to their business strategy. And so it’s not just a statistic. It’s a narrative about the contributions and the potential of women owned businesses to generate growth, to create jobs and to meet the needs of corporate and government buyers.   

Tom Temin So what do you think federal contracting officers can do? I mean, that’s where what it devolves to is the individual CO that 1102 to get a larger base of suppliers into their agencies as opposed to just making sure 23% of the dollars goes out to those types of companies?   

Angela Dingle Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I was just on a call a few minutes ago talking to some women owned businesses that are, you know, really trying to expand their presence in the federal marketplace. And one of the challenges that the contracting workforce has in the federal government is that there’s much more work to do and a lot less people available to do that. So education is a key component of what Women Impacting Public Policy, or WIPP, as we are affectionately known in the marketplace. One of the things that we try to do is educate. We try to educate women business owners on what it looks like to do business with the federal government. And we try to educate contracting officers on how best to do business with them. So what tools do they have in their toolbox that are available for them to be able to award those contracts, whether those contracts are women owned, small business set asides or otherwise? And then from an advocacy standpoint, we are working at the highest levels of government, both within individual agencies like the Small Business Administration and the General Services Administration, and then with Congress as a whole to say, how do we how do we level the playing field, How do we make it easier for the contracting officers to buy the products and services that they need? Because when it’s all said and done, agencies have a mission that they need to achieve, right? How do we make that process easier for them? But how do we also change public policy so that it is conducive to creating more of those opportunities for small businesses? Does that mean we need to reduce the regulatory burden? Does that mean that we need to allocate more dollars? Does that mean that we need to educate contracting officers on how to set aside or create sole source opportunities for those with a business owner? So we really encourage we run a national program called ChallengeHer. It is a partnership between the Small Business Administration, American Express and women impacting public policy. And that is a great educational opportunity. We bring in partners from the public sector, the private sector and business owners, right. So if we get a contracting officer that can come and spend the day with us, then they understand. They hear for themselves what the challenges are that the women businesses are running into. They also have an opportunity to meet and identify the women owned businesses or businesses in general that can provide the products and services that they need. So we’ve done that program for years. We’ve educated over 26,000 women business owners and allows us to form some really good partnerships with agencies to help them to get the product or the service that they need. I always say when I meet a new contracting officer or someone from their contracting side, I go, Just call us. Like, just call us. We’ll help you find if you need this particular product or this particular skill set, give us a call and we’ll try to help you find that.   

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Angela Dingle. She is CEO of Women Impacting Public Policy. And to what extent do you think the lack of regular order, which has become itself regular in establishing full year appropriations for that fiscal year on time, that shortens the time that agencies have to spend the new appropriations and therefore that might just mitigate against thorough sourcing and market research to find those companies that otherwise could participate. Do you think that’s a factor?   

Angela Dingle You hit the nail right on the head. Right. The sales cycle in the federal marketplace has gotten longer for a number of different reasons. The way that the federal government buys is changing over time. When you look at it from a taxpayer standpoint, category management or, you know, bundling or consolidating, consolidating, buying power makes a whole lot of sense from a tax payer standpoint. But what that means from a small business standpoint is that if you are not in on one of the best in class contract vehicles where those dollars might get awarded quickly, then you lose out on the opportunity. So that this continuing resolution that we’ve gone through year after year really puts a strain on small businesses and on the contracting officers to get their jobs done if they can’t get the dollars that they need appropriated until the second or the third quarter of the year, they’re obviously going to have to make some quick and easy decisions. We always say they use the easy, but right now I’ve got a stack of contracts that I need to award. I’m going to use the easiest contracting option that I have available to me, which might mean I don’t go to a small business or I don’t go to the small businesses that have the greatest need in terms of being able to make that contracting award. So we have we are always encouraging Congress to pass the budget on a timely basis, do that in a bipartisan manner, because we don’t care who’s in office. We just want to want to help the government meet its needs. And so we’d really like to see if they can do that in a way that does not cost small businesses to suffer by waiting so long in the in the fiscal year to be able to get some awards. I mean, we were talking to someone last week and they were saying like a significant portion of the awards are made in the fourth quarter of the year. I mean, that’s two thirds of the way through the calendar year.   

Tom Temin Sure. And you mentioned the regulatory environment a few minutes ago. And notwithstanding the fact that there are hundreds sometimes of standard clauses that end up in federal contracts, that’s one issue. The other issue is the constant layering on of socio economic regulation. How much green gas emissions does your company, which occupies one floor of an office building, produce, the DEIA requirements? Other labor practice requirements that have been laid on by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and also the Office of Contractor Compliance Programs at the Labor Department. Coming from the administration has been a turnoff for a lot of companies. What’s your feeling on some of those layering of socioeconomic goals that only apply in federal contracting?   

Angela Dingle So there are a couple of ways that you can look at that. Regulatory burden can cause a business owner to lose confidence in their ability to compete. If I am new to the federal government or I’ve been accustomed to doing business one way and now there’s this new way, I might not know how best to quickly continue to generate opportunities and grow our business. And in some instances, it’s just been a deterrent such that people are saying, No thanks, I don’t want to do business in the federal marketplace anywhere, right? So looking at it from the small business side, that’s one issue. When you think about the broader intent of those forms of programs. DEI programs are very important because when you look at the data, although there has been a goal to set aside a certain percentage of contracting dollars, if we just looked at women owned business, for instance, the federal government has only made that goal two times in 15 years. So there’s a need for the programs. If you if you look at the dollars, it’ll be, in some instances, less than 1% that’s been allocated to that particular socioeconomic category. So, you know, it’s a chicken and egg. Do you completely do away with them in a way to make it easier for everyone to do business? Or do you try to do the right thing, for lack of a better word, with the intent of those programs? Our position has been that we think those programs are important because they do create opportunities for women business owners in particular, because women have a tougher time getting access to capital. And so if I if I’ve got a program that makes it a little bit easier for me to if it removes a barrier and makes it easier for me to gain access to those. Opportunities. When I get one that maybe I can get another one. Now I start to grow my capacity and be able to provide better services. But doing business with the federal government is interesting. To your point, there are six that I can’t even remember how many pages there are in the Federal Acquisition Regulation. And for a small business to understand and have to comply with them can be challenging.   

Tom Temin I think it’s somewhere between the number of pages in the Talmud and in the Encyclopedia Britannica somewhere. You’ll find that page number.   

Angela Dingle Yes, indeed.   

Tom Temin Bottom line, though, it’s worth pursuing federal contracting in the long run.   

Angela Dingle Oh, it’s definitely worth pursuing federal contracting in the long run. It can make or break. I mean, it can be a game changer and create generational wealth for companies who are just starting out. Some of those very socioeconomic programs that we talk about are the foot in the door. They are they are the removal of a barrier that would make it impossible to do business with the federal government. The federal government is fortune one, they like to say. Right. The biggest buyer in the world. And if you can develop a product or services that helps the federal government to meet a need, right? You don’t lead with a socio economic program. You don’t lead with the fact that you’re a woman-owned business. You lead with the capability that you can provide to help us protect the nation, rebuild our infrastructure, create the next innovative solution that we need in space. All of those things are what you lead with. And if and if necessary, then you use those socioeconomic categories to create less of a barrier that allows you to compete because they’re still competing for that work. It’s not like a socioeconomic designation opens the door and there is no competition. All it does is give you an opportunity to compete in an area where you have been able to do so before.  

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