Master Getting Government Sole Source Awards to Make Life Easier for You and Your Federal Customers

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This is a guest post by Olessia Smotrova of OST Global Solutions, Inc. 
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – The Art of War by Sun Tzu

When we talk about the goals of federal business development and capture management at our Bid & Proposal Academy training courses, we pragmatically reduce them to only five:

  1. Identify opportunities to bid on
  2. Eliminate competition
  3. Reduce competition if you can’t eliminate it
  4. Get the government customer excited about receiving your proposal
  5. Make it a goal to produce a usable proposal artifact at every step of the capture process, so that writing a winning proposal is a slam dunk.

Goal 2, Eliminate competition, refers to sole source awards. In their simplest form, sole source awards are modifications to add scope to your existing contracts. It works like this: the government has a problem and comes to you. Your technical and BD people meet with the government to discuss the solution and find a contract vehicle to route the work to.

The government issues the modification, and you’ve won new business won without a fight. Both the government and you save a headache and money while getting great value.

The more complex form of sole source awards is getting your firm under a new contract without competing. We‘ll discuss them below, as well as the pending rule changes that are about to make life a bit easier for socioeconomically disadvantaged small businesses.

When can you pursue a sole source award?

We’ve already talked about sole source awards at the end of the federal fiscal year. Sole source awards increase during that time. This allows government entities to make the most of their remaining budgets. This is the simplest and fastest way for the government to navigate through the “use it or lose it” budgetary conundrum.

You can also get sole source awards from your current government customers at any time of the year, provided that the conditions are right. Sole source awards have to fall under one of the seven authorities laid out in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).

  1. There is only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy an agency’s requirements.
  2. Unusual and compelling urgency
  3. Industrial mobilization; engineering, developmental, or research capability; or expert services
  4. International agreement
  5. Authorized or required by statute
  6. National security
  7. Public interest

Many sole source opportunities are awarded under Authorities 1 and 2.

In Authority 1, your company is the only one who can provide a particular product or service, and full and open competition would just result in the contract being awarded to you anyway.

Authority 2 work results from an emergency situation such as a war effort, or a sudden natural disaster for which there is no multiple award contract vehicle that covers that specific scope of work.

What about 8(a), SDVOSB, HUBZone, and WOSB/EDWOSB sole source awards?

These awards fall under Authority 5 listed above. It states that some contracting awards are only available to small businesses who participate in the Small Business Administration’s contracting assistance programs.

Sole source awards have monetary limits. Currently, the limits for socioeconomically disadvantaged businesses such as 8(a)  business are $4 million for services and $6.5 million for manufacturing. The exceptions to that are Alaskan Native Corporations (ANC) and Native American Tribal Entities (“super 8(a)s”). They can receive sole source awards for $22 million, and even higher with justification.

Changes may be coming to special sole source award thresholds in 2019

The House of Representatives recently passed a bill (H.R. 190) referred to as “Expanding Contracting Opportunities for Small Business Act of 2019”. On January 17, 2019, the Senate sent the bill to the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. The last roll call vote was 415-6 in the House, so there is clear bipartisan support.  

The majority of these changes would impact 8(a)s, Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSB), Women-Owned Small Businesses, and HUBZone businesses.

Specifically, H.R. 190 would change the award price calculation requirements. H.R. 190 removes the requirement for option years to be included in the award price. That means contracting officers could price the award at just the base period of the contract.

Let’s do the math. If the initial year of the contract is valued at $4 million for services, but the contract includes four 1-year options also valued at $4 million, the overall value of the awarded contract would be $20 million – much closer to the super-8(a) $22 million threshold.

It used to be that $4 million was the total value of the contract, and now it’s just the projected maximum award price for the initial year. Under the current law, a sole source award of this amount wouldn’t be possible. Let’s see if this is how this law will be implemented.

The bill would also increase the sole source manufacturing threshold from $6.5 million to $7 million for all socioeconomically disadvantaged small business types, along with other changes.

A note about sole source awards

Finally, your customer may not come to you when they have room in their budget and need the work done. It’s up to you to anticipate their needs and act. This is when being in tune with your customer’s requirements comes into play. You may have opportunities to suggest sole source contracts as solutions to your customer’s pressing needs. If you’ve trained your project personnel to report back with any needs your government customer has, you’ll be in a great position to take advantage of small (or not so small) opportunities like these.

If you need to sharpen your business development skills to grow your small federal contracting company, we recommend you attend our Foundations of Federal Business Development course or consider getting the Blueprint for Federal Business Development for self-paced study.


Olessia Smotrova, CF.APMP Fellow, is the president of OST Global Solutions, Inc., a federal business development consulting and training company. She has 21 years of experience in government business development, winning more than $20 billion in funded contracts. She is the author of How to Get Government Contracts: Have a Slice of $1 Trillion Pie. Prior to founding OST, she developed business for Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and wrote for the Financial Times of London.


DOD Rule for LPTA Allows More Focus on ‘Best Value’ Procurements

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In the previous administration, one of the things that became popular in the drive to save the government money was the use of an evaluation process or technique called LPTA, or least price technically acceptable.

So what was different about this? Instead of doing a detailed review of the technical proposal, technical approach, management approach, past performance, etc., all those factors were lumped together and made into a pass/fail or technically acceptable criteria.

What further assisted the contracting officers and the government was that under an LPTA evaluation, you could start by evaluating the least priced proposal and if their technical approach was acceptable, then you didn’t need to even look at the rest of the proposals.

So if, for example, I got 10 proposals, and I started out with the very first one that was the lowest cost, and that proposal represented a technically acceptable approach, then I didn’t have to review the other nine proposals. Clearly this is an enormous saving of time and energy for the contracting officers and everyone else.

On the other hand, what eventually came to happen, was that people were awarded LPTA contracts and then were unable to perform because their rates were too low. So while the contracting officers were happy because they got more work done, the people in the program offices who had received these kinds of awards on their contracts were unhappy because the people couldn’t do the work at the price they’d bid.

So a new set of rules has been implemented, explained well by Jeff Kinney at WashingtonExec, which implement criteria from NDAA 2017 that make it harder to justify an LPTA approach. This will ensure that procurements that are solving more complex problems that require creative and innovative solutions will be evaluated under ‘best value’ criteria rather than LPTA.

As Kinney explains, the ‘best value’ approach “allows the government flexibility to determine the best mix of price and capability, rather than merely accepting the lowest bid that meets minimum criteria.”

Frankly, only time will tell whether it works out correctly.


Small Business Contracting in Disaster Areas

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As Sam Finnerty of PilieroMazza recounted in this blog post, in December 2018 the U.S. Small Business Administration (“SBA”) issued a proposed rule to implement several provisions of NDAA 2016 and 2017, as well as the Recovery Improvements for Small Entities After Disaster Act of 2015 (“RISE Act”).

As we all know, there have been many major disasters like the fires in California, and hurricanes that happen every year. In these situations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a process in place to have the President declare a national disaster and designate a disaster area. The SBA also has separate size standards for small businesses in a “major disaster or emergency area.”

The SBA’s new provisions are important for small business owners because they provide additional incentives and credits for using local small businesses in response to these disasters. As a point of fact, this rule applies to any contracting within the disaster area, not necessarily a contract associated with disaster recovery.

There are some limitations, for example you need to have your main operating office in the disaster area, plus they want 50% of your revenue generated there and 50% of your employees located there. However, the SBA will consider other factors if your business doesn’t quite meet those standards.

The fundamental issue is that firms within a disaster area now get extra benefit in the form of a small business credit awarded to the government agency issuing the contract. This is obviously good for small business because the more incentives people have to use small business, the better it is for those businesses.


Subcontractor Plans – Stronger Penalty Standards

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As Sam Finnerty explained on the PilieroMazza blog, “On December 4, 2018, the U.S. Small Business Administration (‘SBA’) issued a proposed rule (‘Rule’) to implement several provisions of the National Defense Authorization Acts (‘NDAA’) of 2016 and 2017 and the Recovery Improvements for Small Entities After Disaster Act of 2015 (‘RISE Act’), as well as other clarifying amendments.”

These changes will likely be implemented in March 2019. We’ll be taking a closer look at several of these, beginning with subcontracting plans. Finnerty writes:

“Consistent with the 2017 NDAA, the Rule states that it shall be a material breach of contract when a contractor or subcontractor fails to comply in good faith with its subcontracting plan requirements, including failing to provide reports and/or cooperate in studies or surveys to determine the extent of compliance. The Rule provides a number of examples of what constitutes a failure to make ‘good faith’ efforts, including, among others, (1) failing to timely submit subcontracting reports and (2) failing to pay small business subcontractors in accordance with the terms of the contract. The Rule also provides that failure to make a good faith effort may be considered in any past performance evaluation of the contractor.

With respect to subcontracting plans, the Rule also requires other than small prime contractors with commercial subcontracting plans to include indirect costs in their subcontracting goals. According to SBA, the burden imposed by this change would be de minimis, as approximately 95% of the firms with commercial subcontracting plans in 2017 already included indirect costs in their subcontracting goals.”

Normally, subcontracting plans are required for large businesses where the RFP requires a certain amount of small business participation. Unfortunately, most small businesses have experienced inconsistencies between what they thought they were going to get from their subcontract and what actually ends up happening.

So NDAA 2016 and 2017 contained changes that were designed to put some teeth into the potential penalties for non-compliance on the part of large businesses. First of all, the rule essentially creates the potential for a contracting officer to find the large business in breach of contract when they fail to comply. That is a much stronger penalty standard than the kind of scolding which was basically all they could do at present.

A few of the things that are required are one, as silly as it sounds, is to not only submit timely formal subcontracting reports, but also to cooperate when the SBA or any small business agency is doing a study or a survey. The second issue is to honor their payment terms with their small business subcontractors, who are highly dependent on their subcontract revenue coming in on time because of loans and other commitments. Too often a large business will withhold payment for some mythical time related to their accounting system that has nothing to do with whether the work had been completed.

The third issue is that subcontracting plans will include not just direct costs but what are called indirect costs. What this does is increase the accounting accountability of these issues.

Stay tuned for our continued look at these important small business issues.


Small Business Runway Extension Act of 2018 (H.R. 6330)

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The Small Business Runway Extension Act of 2018 (H.R. 6330), authored by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, passed on December 6th and has now been signed by the President.

As explained in this press release, this legislation (also know as the “5-year look back”) ensures that small business size standards are calculated using average annual receipts from the previous five years, instead of the previous three. This change will significantly reduce the impact of years wherein businesses experience unexpectedly rapid growth, often causing them to prematurely lose their small business status.

We heard the news from Tonya Saunders of Mid-Tier Advocacy (MTA), in a follow-up to December’s MTA CEO Roundtable meeting, which Louisa and I were happy to sponsor and host.

While Tonya pointed out that this bill doesn’t help most mid-tiers, it is an incremental start at addressing some of the problems that a growing firm faces as they begin to grow beyond small.

She also passed along a note of thanks from Barbara Ashe, Executive Vice President of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, who thanked MTA for our support as a Coalition Partner in the Midsize Initiative. Ms. Ashe wrote: “Not only does this legislative change open the door to other initiatives for companies bumping up against small business standards, we also successfully changed the term from ‘mid-tier’ to ‘midsize businesses’ in an effort to clarify the businesses we are seeking to assist.”


How the Order-Level Materials Initiative Improves the Schedules Program

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On January 24, 2018, a final General Services Acquisition Regulation (GSAR) rule was issued that incorporates order-level materials (OLMs) into the Multiple Award Schedule (MAS) program. On selected schedules, agencies can now acquire not just the products and services they’ve come to rely on from GSA, but also the associated items required to make use of them at the order level.

From GSA: “OLMs are supplies and/or services acquired in direct support of an individual task or delivery order placed against a Schedule contract or BPA. OLM pricing is not established at the Schedule contract or BPA level, but at the order level. Since OLMs are identified and acquired at the order level, the ordering contracting officer (OCO) is responsible for making a fair and reasonable price determination for all OLMs.

OLMs are procured under a special ordering procedure that simplifies the process for acquiring supplies and services necessary to support individual task or delivery orders placed against a Schedule contract or BPA. Using this new procedure, ancillary supplies and services not known at the time of the Schedule award may be included and priced at the order level.”

So what are the new benefits of this policy, and why should you care?

  • OLMs increase the flexibility of contracts using the various GSA Schedules, especially the ones that focus on services, to provide a total solution to meet the actual customer requirements.
  • OLMs reduce customer agency procurement/administrative costs and makes leveraging GSA Schedules that much easier – of course GSA likes this because they get the order through the MAS, along with any associated fees (the downside is that the company gets OLM “revenue,” which generally is just a pass-through fee, not a profit margin, and therefore is using up revenue).
  • Contracting officers are happy because it reduces contract duplication by eliminating the need to set up new commercial IDIQs and/or open market procurements for ODCs (“Other Direct Costs”).
  • OLMs potentially eliminate the need for Government Furnished Equipment (GFE), and anything that reduces the burden on the customer/contracting officer to track things is HIGHLY desirable.
  • Contracting officers like the fact that MAS terms and conditions apply to OLMs, which ensures customer buys are compliant with FAR and other guidelines.

As a contractor, how do you include OLMs under a Schedule order?

The special ordering procedures are contained in General Services Administration Acquisition Regulation (GSAR) clause 552.538-82 Special Ordering Procedures for the Acquisition of Order-Level Materials, which may be incorporated into contracts under OLM-authorized Schedules. This clause, along with a dedicated Special Item Number (SIN) for Order-Level Materials, allows ordering activities to include OLMs in Schedule orders.

It is important to remember:

  • Prices for OLMs are not established in the Schedule contract or BPA.
  • OLMs are established and acquired at the order level, and the ordering activity contracting officer is responsible for making the determination that prices for all OLMs are fair and reasonable.
  • OLM procedures may be used to purchase OLM products or services to support delivery orders (products) or task orders (services) under authorized GSA Schedules.
  • OLMs may be added to any order-type, i.e. Firm Fixed-Price, Time & Materials (T&M), or Labor Hour. However, the OLM CLIN (contract line item number) must be T&M, but it can be the only T&M CLIN on the order. i.e., OLMs may be added to a Firm Fixed-Price order, but the OLM CLIN itself must be T&M.

Current Authorized OLM Schedules

  • 00CORP – Professional Services Schedule
  • 03FAC – Facilities Maintenance and Management
  • 56 – Buildings And Building Materials / Industrial Services and Supplies
  • 70 – Information Technology
  • 71 – Furniture
  • 84 – Security, Fire, & Law Enforcement
  • 738X – Human Capital Management and Administrative Support Services

A GSA OLM Ordering Guide is coming soon. In the meantime, check out these resources:


H.R. 5337, the Accelerated Payments for Small Businesses Act

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This bill, which applies only to the Department of Defense, will amend section 3903 of title 31, United States Code, to establish accelerated payments applicable to contracts with certain small business concerns. This bill would require the government to establish a goal of paying all small business contractors within 15 days of receiving a proper invoice. The bill also establishes a similar goal for government contractors that have small business sub-contractors.

This bill is a win-win-win for small businesses, taxpayers, and the community.

For small businesses: “Small business contractors rely on a consistent and reliable flow of income in order to keep their operations running smoothly. The Accelerated Payments for Small Businesses Act will help ensure these businesses receive their payments in a timely and accountable manner. This consistency will enable businesses to focus on improving their services and expanding production.” – Representative Steve Knight (R-CA)

“The Accelerated Payments for Small Businesses Act [will] ensure that all transactions among small business contractors are treated with the respect and equity they deserve. Making this commitment will yield a tremendous return further incorporating small businesses including those that are women-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned, and HUBZone contractors.” – Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY)

For the taxpayers: “[This bill means that] small business prime contractors and prime contractors that subcontract with small businesses can continue to do business and not pass on any unnecessary costs to the taxpayer” – House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-OH)

For the community: “For small companies, payment delays can mean cash flow problems, constraining their expansion and slowing job growth. By accelerating payments to small companies, this legislation will help small contractors meet payroll, reinvest in their operations and create good paying jobs along the way.” – House Small Business Committee Ranking Member Nydia Velázquez (D-NY)

It also affects a company having the resources in time to pay subcontractors and even our 1099 consultants and SMEs, increasingly used in this rapidly innovating economy. We’ve talked in other venues about financing options, but anything which reduces the cost of credit and makes payments better, also saves money for the contractor.


H.R. 2364, the Investing in Main Street America Act

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The SBIC program is an investment program with a Small Business Administration (SBA) guarantee that increases access to capital for high-growth, start-up businesses.

This provision in the NDAA, H.R. 2364, amends the Small Business Investment Act of 1958 to increase from 5% to 15% of its capital and surplus, the amount a national bank, a member bank of the Federal Reserve System, a nonmember insured bank (to the extent permitted under applicable state law), or a federal savings association may invest in one or more small business investment companies (SBICs), or in any entity established to invest solely in SBICs. The increase is subject to the approval of the appropriate federal banking agency.

The bill will assist small business in obtaining venture capital and private equity (source). Anything we can do to stimulate the flow of more investment from normal capital flows, like banks and chartered SBICs, is definitely a good thing for small businesses. And as you know, that’s the engine of growth that we follow in this blog.

While this may seem a small thing, these SBICs are major players in the growth and financing of small businesses across the country and in “main street” America. And the good news is this is one of those drafted regulations that can be adjusted fairly easily and produce substantial results. Across the board, we’ve actually tripled the funding available for these SBIC entities.


H.R. 2763 – The Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Improvements Acts

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One of the things we’re seeing a lot of in the Federal sector right now is an emphasis on innovation and on finding new ways to do things. So, it’s not surprising that the 2018 NDAA addressed this in part.

This provision in the NDAA amends the Small Business Act to require:
• the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) annual report on the Small Business Information and Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs to be submitted by December 31, and
• each Federal agency required to establish an SBIR program to submit its annual report on such program by March 30.

H.R. 2763, the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Improvements Act requires (current law authorizes) the Department of Defense (DOD), for any contract under the Commercial Readiness Program with a value of at least $100 million, to:
• establish goals for the transition of Phase III technologies in subcontracting plans, and
• require a prime contractor to report the number and dollar amount of contacts entered into for Phase III SBIR or STTR projects.

The NDAA also authorizes all agencies participating in the SBIR program, during FY2018-FY2022, to provide SBIR Phase II awards for a project to a small business concern without regard to whether such concern was provided a Phase I award for such project.

This is important because the funding now can go to organizations, especially small businesses. This is a new proviso and gives agencies far more flexibility in awarding innovative technologies even a direct Phase II award.

The provision changes the temporary pilot program that a covered agency may establish for the allocation of SBIR and STTR program funds for awards for technology development, testing, evaluation, and commercialization assistance for SBIR and STTR phase II technologies, or to support the progress of research, research and development, and commercialization conducted under such programs to phase III, to a permanent Civilian Agency Commercialization Readiness Program.

It also extends until September 30, 2022, the deadline until which the SBA shall allow each agency required to conduct an SBIR program to use not more than 3% of program funds for administrative, oversight, and contract processing costs.

This provision also calls for greater transparency from the Small Business Administration (SBA) on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.


What to Expect From Divided Government

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The voters didn’t quite create a blue wave, although the numbers moving from Republican to Democrat have definitely made the House a very blue-ish territory. Of course the Democrats aren’t any more monolithic than the Republicans were, and pressure from the Democratic left wing, especially leading up to a presidential election, may create interesting reading in the Washington, D.C. bubble.

But what will it mean for us as Federal contractors?

One possibility is that we’ll keep on avoiding the “continuing resolutions” – the last two years we’ve had full budgets and this year we got that in before the new FY started, for the first time in a decade. I’m hoping that we can continue down this path, and give the Federal budget makers and the folks who divide it up and authorize spending, the time to get it done.

I don’t know about your company, but mine has been responding to RFIs and RFPs in the 1st FY quarter like the floodgates have opened, and that’s a good thing, because awards will come in time to actually enjoy the spending for most of a full year.

Another possibility is that we’ll return to those continuing resolutions – this will be bad, but not catastrophic, as solid budgets are in place from the past two years that can be used to move forward.

The thing I fear the most is that there will be paralysis, as the two sides don’t really put running the country first, and will allow the budgets to be taken hostage by the political process. This would be a bad thing, and I certainly hope we’re not headed back there.

Happy Thanksgiving, happy holidays, and we’ll see what the New Year brings.


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