The 17-person 809 panel, created in Section 809 of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), was tasked with finding ways to streamline and improve the defense acquisition process. The panel had two years to develop recommendations for changes in the regulation and associated statute to achieve those ends.
As part of its review, the Section 809 Panel reviewed the DoD small business program. The panel ultimately developed several specific recommendations designed to improve how the DoD small business program supports DoD initiatives. One of the major areas of interest was determining how to promote the entry of non-traditional DoD companies who offered advanced technology and innovative solutions to DoD challenges.
I met with the 809 Panel in February 2017. I found it important to note that mid-tier companies performing in the DoD market sector play a major role in generating jobs and enhancing overall economic growth for the Nation and that mid-tier companies, defined as companies earning $25M-$500M annually, are being squeezed by small businesses on one side and by large businesses on the other.
In that context, I offered seven points, which also generally apply to small businesses, innovating companies developing new technologies, and companies that are new entrants into the defense market space.
- First, mid-tier companies cannot grow effectively if they are primarily subcontractors to large businesses since subcontractors are unable to obtain significant workshare. Large businesses have little motivation to offer mid-tier companies significant work since DoD acquisition policies encourage them to award subcontracts to small businesses.
- Second, the primary pathway for growth for mid-tier companies is to win large multiple award, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts as primes so they can compete for agency task orders. However, to win these IDIQs, mid-tier companies must surmount major challenges:
- Mid-tiers are often locked out of large multiple award IDIQs owing to significant past performance criteria.
- The tendency of DoD agencies to consolidate contracts to reduce administrative burdens and costs, which favors large businesses. Such IDIQ consolidation reduces opportunities for mid-tier companies to penetrate and support customer agencies, which constrains future growth. Consolidation also poses risk to growth owing to long period of performance of awarded IDIQs; mid-tier companies often have to wait a decade before they can compete again as an IDIQ prime if they miss out on the near-term opportunity.
- Third, mid-tier companies must contend with ever rising costs that increase their indirect rates and make it more difficult to compete against large businesses. These cost increases are the result of several factors, chief among them are supporting employee benefits under newly enacted national healthcare polices, responding to current and emerging cyber security requirements, maintaining sophisticated auditable financial systems, and obtaining certifications and appraisals, such as ISO-9001:2008/20015, ISO 20000, ISO 27001 and CMMI-3/4, which DoD agencies increasingly require of companies seeking to pursue and perform work.
- Fourth, while mid-tier companies are capable of providing the same or better level of service and customer relations as large businesses, their competiveness is hampered by higher overhead costs relative to large businesses because they lack the scale to absorb those indirect costs. These higher costs, combined with the lowest price technically acceptable and low price competition environment we are experiencing in the defense sector, hinder mid-tier companies in achieving success as they compete against large business on full and open competitions.
- Fifth, North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes used to classify DoD work and define company size standards offer little support for mid-tier companies. While some NAICS codes, such as 541712/5, Research and Development, reflect a size standard of 1000 employees, up from 500 employees in Feb 2016, DoD agency contracting officials tend to strictly interpret the type of work performed and the size standard offers little benefit to mid-tier companies. Hence, there are no contracting tools to benefit or promote mid-tier company growth.
- Sixth, graduating small businesses confront major challenges as they evolve into mid-tier companies and must compete as newly minted large businesses. While seeking a merger or acquisition may represent a potential exit strategy, in many cases, successful small businesses owe their growth to small business contract awards, which are of little value to large business acquirers. Hence, the businesses are at great risk of failing shortly after graduating from small business status: they are too big to be small and too small to be effective as large businesses. While the Congress and DoD have done an excellent job in establishing policies that promote small business growth, particularly for socio-economic challenged groups, they have failed to establish an effective strategy to promote business health and growth across the total business life cycle, from start-up/small business through mid-tier to large business.
- Seventh, and my final point, small business officials in DoD agencies generally sympathize with the challenges mid-tier companies confront, however they state they can do little to help without congressional and/or department involvement and legislation. Their focus is on accomplishing their duties by promoting the various small business classifications.
The US lacks a strategic approach to promoting growth of US businesses supporting the DoD. The current government programs that promote the interests of small businesses fail to account for their eventual growth into being mid-tier companies. At that point, such companies must compete against small businesses, other mid-tier companies, and very large companies. This poses great challenges to rising small businesses. I believe Congress and DoD should seek avenues to promote the lifecycle growth of companies by accounting for those mid-tier company challenges.
Randy J. (“RJ”) Kolton is VP of Mid-Tier Advocacy Group, and Senior Vice President (SVP), Business Development for Data Systems Analysts (DSA), Inc., a mid-sized, employee-owned company that is a leader in delivering business driven information technology and consulting solutions and services to the Federal Government and industry. Building on experience spanning more than five decades, DSA has deep expertise and comprehensive understanding of the operational, security, collaboration, and identity management challenges our customers must address.