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The competitiveness of small business contracts

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District
Published Aug. 25, 2020
Updated: Aug. 25, 2020
Infographic with numeric breakdown of small business figures.

The Charleston District executes over 700 contract actions per year. These actions are what gets water lines laid, barracks built, harbors dredged, beaches renourished, and dams repaired.

The Charleston District executes over 700 contract actions per year. These actions are what gets water lines laid, barracks built, harbors dredged, beaches renourished, and dams repaired. These actions also provide office supplies, facility investment services, data collection and many other items that allow us to deliver our program in support of the nation.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation governs the contracting process, with the goal of ensuring that the government is never wasting taxpayer money and is always getting a fair and reasonable price on a job. While there are several categories of contracts that can be awarded, no contract can be awarded without going through at least some part of the FAR. Every contract is competitive in one way or another. The goal is to get the right people on board to complete the mission in the best possible way, while being a good steward of the taxpayer dollar.

Before every contract begins, the District conducts market research. This is done through reviewing recent history, knowledge of the marketplace, capability briefings and “sources sought” notices, which are public advertisements listing the general requirements of the project to gauge interest and capabilities from small businesses. Responses to questions, related to bonding levels, relevant experience, scheduling capabilities, and more, are analyzed by the market research team to determine if there is enough small business interest to set the contract aside for a small business.

If there is enough interest, the contracting team uses the information gathered to make a determination on how the project will set aside. It can be a competitive small business contract or an 8a “sole source” contract through Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act.

A sole source 8(a) contract can be awarded if a qualified 8(a) small business is deemed to be responsible and able to perform the activities required and the contract can be awarded at a fair and reasonable price. When an 8(a) sole source is considered, the market research team reviews a list of the most qualified contractors and often conducts interviews to determine interest and capability. In the last eight years, the District has awarded an average of 89 contracts per year under Section 8(a) for an average of more than $25 million per year.

“The 8(a) program is vital to the success of our mission here in the Charleston District,” said Charlenne Figgins, chief of contracting. “With a high-volume workload and a lean staff, our relationship with contractors who have the ability to design and build our construction projects is one of the ways that we can ensure mission execution. The 8(a) sole source program allows us to award such projects in a more efficient manner.”

In the last decade, the District has exceeded its small business goals almost every year, awarding as much as 81 percent of contracts to small business in fiscal year 2015. With only a couple months to go before the end of FY20, the District has awarded 84 percent of contracts to small businesses so far.

“The Charleston District is proud to work with and help develop small businesses as often as possible,” said Figgins. “The Corps is always looking for innovative ways to work, and those ideas often come from small businesses. This helps build our base of capable contractors and strengthens the nation’s economic development.”

So what happens when a global pandemic hits in the middle of the fiscal year and the nation needs help ensure the medical demand can be met? The Corps’ motto “Essayons” means “let us try.” At the direction of FEMA and the state of South Carolina, the District brought engineering and contracting expertise to help plan for the COVID response, as all other Corps districts did across the country.

While the District’s contracting staff was working from home, the contracting team was extremely busy soliciting information from contractors on their capabilities to set up alternate care facilities to treat patients with COVID-19. This was being done on top of keeping other contract actions on schedule for normal construction projects.

“While we didn’t end up awarding any contracts for alternate care facilities, our team was well-prepared to move forward should the need for those facilities rise,” said Figgins. “Our dedicated staff performed extensive market research and worked with our construction and engineering offices to narrow down our list of potential contractors. We also drafted all contract-related documents in advance so that if we received a request to move forward, we would have been able to make an award in a manner of days versus the typical cycle of months.”

As the end of the fiscal year approaches, the District is still carrying out our mission while our employees continue to work from home. Approximately 300 contract actions worth an estimated $200 million remain to be awarded this fiscal year, including for the Post 45 Harbor Deepening, Fort Jackson Starship Combined Heat and Power Project, and the Marine Forces Reserve Windy Hill Whole Center Renovation. And as we do with all our contract actions, we will continue to follow the FAR and award contracts that are fair and reasonably priced.