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Here are just a few of the companies that were considered a small business in the past year: Apple, Chevron, Verizon, Bank of America and Disney. At least, that’s what one advocacy group found when it perused the Federal Procurement Data Systems for government contracts for the past year.

Each year, the government attempts to award at least 23 percent of all federal contracts to small businesses. But new research from the American Small Business League (ASBL) shows that 72 large companies received $16.4 billion in federal small-business contracts, which the group attributes to a combination of policy loopholes, human error and mis-categorization.

“It’s really hard for a small company to compete with a company that has 5,000 employees,” said Brian Reeder, communications director for the ASBL. “When bigger companies are actually receiving the contracts, there’s nothing left for small businesses.”

The Small Business Administration cautions that it has not yet released its official data on contracting for 2011 and therefore can’t speak to the accuracy of ASBL’s findings. SBA will publish its official 2011 Small Business Procurement Scorecard this summer

“Each federal agency is responsible for ensuring the quality of its own contracting data, but SBA conducts an additional analysis to help agencies identify any potential data anomalies,” said John Shoraka, the SBA’s Associate Administrator for Government Contracting and Business Development in an e-mail statement. “As part of its ongoing data quality efforts, SBA is continuing to work with federal agency procurement staff to provide tools to facilitate review of data, implement improvements to procurement systems and conduct training to improve accuracy.”

Holes in the system

The ASBL report, released Thursday morning, found that of the top 100 companies receiving federal small business contracts, 72 were large companies that exceeded the SBA’s small-business size standards, which vary depending on the sector.

It’s difficult to identify just one reason why the contracts are awarded as they are, but experts say there are countless small leakages in the government procurement process that can cause large businesses, either purposefully or indirectly, to occasionally win out over small ones.

Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer with the government-contractor software company Deltek, said it can be hard for the SBA to pick the “right” size for a company to be considered a small business under the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes, the government’s business classification system.

“When SBA is looking at one class of establishment, such as a corn farmer, there are a lot of small-business corn growers, but also large corporate growers,” Bjorklund said. “It’s not an easy thing to maintain size standards in a way that keeps up with growth in the economy and changing relationships between sectors.”

Beyond that, when agencies begin feeling the pressure to meet their 23 percent goal, Bjorklund said they sometimes choose NAICS codes that have larger-sized caps if they want a large company to fit into a small-business contract.

“If the agency is anxious to meet its socioeconomic goals, they say, ‘I can make this a small-business set aside if I can justify it this way,’” he said.  “All of this is legal, but they should have been more judicious in their acquisition strategy.”

Not close enough for government work

Reeder said human error is another problem in how contracts are coded. For example, Apple was likely never registered as a small business, but Reeder speculates an agency simply needed something only Apple could provide — iPads, for example — and then neglected to change the code from “small” to “not small” before the transaction was completed. That contract would ultimately be counted toward an agency’s small-business goal.

“There are a lot of those examples, and they really add up,” he said.

The errors may stem from a larger problem in the contracting world — the thin ranks of the acquisition workforce and the paucity of the available funds to train them.

“The acquisition workforce is not as big as it should be, and they’re not as qualified, because years ago, their funding was slashed,” Bjorklund said. “These people have inboxes stacked very high, and they want to do the very best possible job, but sometimes mistakes get made.”

The SBA drew a similar conclusion in a report it issued on the same topic last October, saying, “While some contractors may misrepresent or erroneously calculate their size, most of the incorrect reporting results from errors made by government contracting personnel.”

Small, then big, but still small

There is also a loophole that allows small businesses that are bought by large companies to continue to count as “small” for the purposes of contracting for years after they’re purchased. For example, the report says that CapRock Government Solutions, which ASBL asserts received more than $200 million in small business contracts last year, is a subsidiary of Harris Corporation, a multi-billion dollar company.

“We’re not arguing the companies should lose those contracts, but it seems silly to count them as small when they’re not small,” Reeder said.

Many of these contracts were awarded to small businesses that are actually subsidiaries of large companies, Reeder said, and they, therefore, don’t face the same odds that independent small companies do.

Bjorklund said he believes there are not quite as many large companies receiving small-business contracts as the ASBL has found. Still, he said, “the problem still exists, there’s no denying that.”

Last year, the ASBL found that there were 60 large companies included among the top 100 federal small business contractors, so they say the problem has “at best, stayed the same, if not gotten worse.”

Reeder called for better enforcement of contracting standards by the SBA, but Bjorklund explained that the SBA is largely “hands-off,” and that the ultimate responsibility falls on the agency issuing the contract.

In the October report, the SBA’s Office of the Inspector General said it had made “mixed progress” on the issue of small-business contracts going to large businesses. The agency has developed a program to ensure that contracting personnel review contractor sizes, but it has made “limited progress” in developing regulations to correct the misapplication of industry codes.

So how big of a problem is this for small contractors? Medium, according to Bjorklund. Contractors of every size are losing business as the Department of Defense and other agencies cut back. Small firms don’t have quite the same lobbying clout that larger ones do, he explained, so the impacts for them might be greater — especially if they aren’t getting all the contracts they should be. Then again, at least the government is doing something for small firms.

“At least there are small-business goals that the government is trying to meet,” he said. “That makes it a little better than it would be in the commercial marketplace — where everyone is fending for themselves.”

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This article has been updated to include a statement from the Small Business Administration