Small Business Administration:

Opportunities Exist to Improve Oversight of Women's Business Centers and Coordination among SBA's Business Assistance Programs

GAO-08-49: Published: Nov 16, 2007. Publicly Released: Nov 16, 2007.

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The Women's Business Center (WBC) Program provides training and counseling services to women entrepreneurs, especially those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. In fiscal year 2007, the Small Business Administration (SBA) funded awards to 99 WBCs. However, Congress and WBCs expressed concerns about the uncertain nature of the program's funding structure. Concerns have also been raised about whether the WBC and two other SBA programs, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and SCORE programs, duplicate services. This report addresses (1) uncertainties associated with the funding process for WBCs; (2) SBA's oversight of the WBC program; and (3) actions that SBA and WBCs have taken to avoid duplication among the WBC, SBDC, and SCORE programs. GAO reviewed policies, procedures, examinations, and studies related to the funding, oversight, and services of WBCs and interviewed SBA, WBC, SBDC, and SCORE officials.

Until 2007, SBA funded WBCs for up to 10 years, at which time it was expected that they would become self-sustaining. Specifically, since 1997, SBA has made annual awards to WBCs for up to 5 years. Because of concerns that WBCs could not sustain operations without continued SBA funding, in 1999, Congress created a pilot program to extend funding an additional 5 years. Due to continued uncertainty about WBCs' ability to sustain operations without SBA funding, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation authorizing renewable 3-year awards to WBCs that "graduated" from the program after 10 years and to current program participants. Like the current awards, the 3-year awards are competitive. SBA is revising its award process and plans to provide the 3-year awards in fiscal year 2008. Though SBA has oversight procedures in place to monitor WBCs' performance and use of federal funds, GAO found indications that staff shortages from the agency's downsizing and ineffective communication was hindering SBA's oversight efforts. SBA relies extensively on district office staff to oversee WBCs, but these staff members have other agency responsibilities and may not have the needed expertise to conduct some WBC oversight procedures. SBA provides annual training and has taken steps to adjust its oversight procedures to adapt to staffing changes, but concerns remain. Some WBCs also cited problems with communication, and one study reported that 54 percent of 52 WBCs responding to its survey said that SBA could improve its communication with the centers. Ineffective communication led to confusion among some WBCs about how to meet program requirements. Under the terms of the WBC award, SBA requires WBCs to coordinate with local SBDCs and SCORE chapters. However, GAO found that SBA provided limited guidance or information on successful coordination. Most of the WBCs that GAO spoke with explained that in some situations they referred clients to an SBDC or SCORE counselor, and some WBCs took steps to more actively coordinate with local SBDCs and SCORE chapters to avoid duplication and leverage resources. Still, some WBCs said that coordinating services was difficult, as the programs have similar performance measures and could end up competing for clients. Such concerns thwart coordination efforts and could increase the risk of duplication in some geographic areas.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At the time of our review, District Office Technical Representatives (DOTRs) had three categories of responsibilities for the WBC program--liaison, oversight manager and advisor, and advocate for WBCs in their district--and SBA officials told us that ideally, DOTRs should focus on the oversight and liaison roles. In June 2008, SBA revised the responsibilities for its DOTRs, eliminating the advocacy role that required DOTRs to, among other tasks (1) coordinate with OWBO to improve the program and resolve issues; (2) educate SBA personnel, resource partners such as Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) and SCORE, and others about WBC services; and (3) collect success stories from WBCs to be used for publicizing the program. In addition to eliminating this role, SBA revised its guidance for DOTRs, including detailed instructions for carrying out semi-annual and annual WBC reviews. Further, SBA included information on WBC oversight and a self-study component for DOTRs on its new internal OWBO website to supplement annual training conferences for DOTRs. The actions that SBA has taken to reduce responsibilities and improve guidance for DOTRs should help to increase assurance that WBCs are being monitored more effectively and meeting program requirements, and federal funds for the program are not being misused or wasted.

    Recommendation: To ensure that oversight of the WBC program is efficient and effective the Administrator of SBA should evaluate and modify, as appropriate, the responsibilities assigned to District Office Technical Representatives (DOTR) to ensure that DOTRs can conduct appropriate and effective monitoring of the centers.

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To establish a communication strategy, in January 2008, SBA said it would launch an internal OWBO website for WBCs and District Office Technical Representatives (DOTRs) and had launched the website by August 2008. SBA said it has plans to continually expand and update this resource as new information, policies, and procedures come into play. At present, the website provides WBCs with guidance on (1) performance management, (2) grant management, (3) financial management, and (4) marketing and branding (includes SBA logo files for download). The website also provides online tutorials for WBCs on budgets, expenditures, and other items. SBA's addition of a new website that acts as a communication and resource tool for WBCs should help to keep WBCs more informed about program requirements, including updates, and enable the centers to be more knowledgeable of and successful in the program.

    Recommendation: To ensure that oversight of the WBC program is efficient and effective the Administrator of SBA should establish a communication strategy to ensure that WBCs have access to up-to-date information on program requirements and help the centers better understand how they are performing.

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SBA agreed to address this recommendation. Beginning in fiscal year 2008, SBA included language on the need for SBA resource partners to coordinate in the applications for Women's Business Centers, Small Business Development Centers and SCORE. SBA also said it would collect best practices on local coordination efforts and share those practices on the website available to SBA resource partners, but the agency has not yet completed this action. In February 2012, SBA provided documentation of two initiatives implemented to encourage greater collaboration among its resource partners and to provide opportunities for collaboration to take place. First, SBA will host a Collaboration Summit in March 2012, which will bring together thought leaders of all resource partner groups and SBA's Field Office structure. The purpose of the 2-day summit is to identify ways to improve collaboration among partners; identify success factors and barriers; and discuss how best to find best practice models throughout the networks and share learning from those best practices to advance their replication. The conference and the work plan generated from it will assist SBA's Office of Entrepreneurial Development in providing advice on how best to use federal resources on a more effective and efficient manner. Second, SBA will present a new Champions of Collaboration Award at National Small Business Week in May 2012. The award will honor a collaborative group of SBA resource partners that have advanced opportunities for entrepreneurial development, including providing a wider variety of training and counseling to small business owners.

    Recommendation: To improve coordination and facilitate the efficient use of federally funded resources, the Administrator of SBA should direct the Associate Administrator of the Office of Entrepreneurial Development (OED) to develop guidance or information for SBA's district offices and WBCs, SBDCs, and the former Service Corps of Retired Executies (SCORE) that will facilitate successful coordination of services. This guidance or information could be developed by identifying promising practices currently in place in some geographic areas or by developing case studies or examples of successful coordination models. The guidance should also assist district offices, WBCs, SBDCs and SCORE in providing sound advice on how to coordinate services when doing so could conflict with meeting individual program requirements or initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration


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