Does the SBA’s Rosy Spin on Goaling Achievement Hurt Small Businesses?

“Overpopulation crisis solved!” That’s the sort of headline I expect the SBA’s press team would write the day after a global thermonuclear war.

Obviously, I’m exaggerating a wee bit to make my point, but the SBA’s press release on FY 2020 small business goaling achievement follows a pattern I’ve seen across several Presidential administrations and SBA Administrators: when it comes to reporting on the small business goals, the SBA fervently emphasizes the good news while almost entirely ignoring the bad.

If you look past the headlines and examine the raw data, there is plenty of bad news to be found in the FY 2020 goaling report. So is the SBA doing a disservice to small businesses by pretending this bad news doesn’t exist?

The SBA’s headline is “Federal Government Awards Record-Breaing $145.7 Billion in Contracting to Small Businesses.” The first three paragraphs of the press release focus on the total dollars awarded, an increase of about $13 billion over the previous fiscal year.

The press release then says that the Government earned an “A” for its FY 2020 contracting and provides four bullet-point “highlights”. Three of these highlights are positive, such as “[i]n FY20, the federal government exceeded the service-disabled veteran-owned small business and small disadvantaged business goals of 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Only the fourth bullet hints that not all is perfect in Goaling World, saying, “[d]espite the overall increase in the value of small-business awards, the number of small businesses receiving prime contracts with the Federal government decreased.”

If you were to read the press release, but not the underlying data, you would be forgiven for thinking that–aside from that brief and rather vague fourth bullet–everything is downright hunky-dory when it comes to the small business goals. Record-setting? “A” grades? It all sounds ideal!

You would have to dive into to the data to find out:

  • The government’s small business awards, percentage-wise, were down from FY 2019 (26.01% versus 26.50%). That recordbreaking dollar figure came about because overall government spending increased significantly in FY 2020, not because the government did any better at allocating work to small businesses.
  • The government’s SDVOSB achievement, percentage-wise, also decreased (4.28% versus 4.39%).
  • So did WOSB achievement (4.85% versus 5.19%). This one is especially troubling because the WOSB goal is 5%. The government met that goal in FY 2019 but not in FY 2020.
  • HUBZone achievement, while up slightly (2.44% versus 2.28%) still failed to meet the 3% goal.
  • Of five statutory goals (small business, SDB, SDVOSB, WOSB and HUBZone), the government met only three–or 60%.

The SBA’s rosy spin is par for the course. For instance, the SBA’s press release on FY 2017 goaling similarly touted a record-breaking dollar figure–but neglected to mention that, percentage-wise, three of five categories (small business, SDB and WOSB) had seen a decline from FY 2016, or that the government had failed to meet its 5% WOSB and 3% HUBZone goals. Heck, in FY 2009, the government missed four of five goals, including the bedrock 23% small business goal. But the SBA’s press release still touted a record-breaking dollar number while omitting any mention of the government’s embarassing failure to achieve 80% of its target percentages.

SBA’s mission is to “aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns . . ..” In my view, SBA’s year-after-year spin-doctoring of the goaling report does not assist small businesses–to the contrary, it does a tremendous disservice to the very small businesses the SBA is supposed to aid.

Busy policymakers and acquisition officials may never reach the fine print–all they will see is an endless stream of record-setting and “A” grades. And if these decision-makers get the impression (from the SBA itself, no less) that everything is super-terrific when it comes to small business contracting, why would they take a hard look at how initiatives like category management harm small businesses? Why would they support policies to further boost small business contracting?

Clearly, not all the news from the goaling report is bad. I don’t bregrudge the SBA for reporting the positives. But the SBA ought to stop the spin and report the not-so-positie news, too, without forcing readers to parse the data to discover it. Policymakers, acquisition officials, and the public at large deserve the whole truth about small business goaling achievement, not a carefully-curated, one-sided piece of it.

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