Small Business Contracting:

Opportunities Exist to Further Improve HUBZone Oversight

GAO-15-234: Published: Feb 12, 2015. Publicly Released: Feb 12, 2015.

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shearw@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Small Business Administration (SBA) designates economically distressed areas as Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZone), based on demographic data such as unemployment and poverty rates, but lacks an effective way to communicate program changes to small businesses. The designations apply to areas such as nonmetropolitan counties and census tracts and are subject to periodic changes as economic conditions change. Small businesses in HUBZones can apply for certification to participate in the program. HUBZones that lose their qualifying status due to changes in economic conditions become “redesignated” and undergo a 3-year transition period. In 2015, 3,417 redesignated areas will lose their HUBZone status. There are 578 firms in those areas (see table below). SBA relies on website updates and broadcast e-mails to inform firms about program changes, and consequently not all affected may be informed about the changes before their resultant decertification. SBA has initiated efforts to improve notification of program changes, but its communications may not reach all affected firms and do not specify when the status of areas might change or what firms are located in those areas. As a result, some firms in the program lack timely awareness of information that could affect their eligibility.

Number of Firms and Amount of Contracts Received for Firms in HUBZone Areas in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, by Designation Status

 

Number of certified firms, as of June 2014

Amount of contract obligations to firms in area (FY13)

 

Total

Percent

Total

Percent

Qualified areas

4,318

83%

$3,295,006,042

81%

Redesignated until 2014

146

3

$24,467,606

1

Redesignated until 2015

578

11

702,784,535

17

Redesignated until 2016

69

1

28,832,221

1

Redesignated until 2017

78

2

40,477,929

1

Total

5,189

100%

$4,091,568,333

100%

Source: GAO analysis of SBA data. | GAO-15-234

SBA has addressed weaknesses in its certification process that GAO previously identified, but lacks key controls for its recertification process. For instance, to receive certification SBA now requires all firms to provide documentation to show they meet the eligibility requirements. SBA also conducts site visits at selected firms based on, for example, the amount of federal contracts they received. However, SBA does not require firms seeking recertification to submit any information to verify their continued eligibility or provide guidance on when staff should request or verify documentation for recertification. Instead, it relies on firms attesting that they continue to meet the program's eligibility requirements. By not routinely requiring and reviewing key supporting documentation from recertification applicants, SBA is missing an additional opportunity to reduce the risk that ineligible firms obtain HUBZone contracts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Small firms participating in SBA's HUBZone program received about $4 billion in federal contracts in fiscal year 2013. The program's purpose is to stimulate economic development in economically distressed areas. A certified HUBZone firm is eligible for federal contracting benefits, including limited competition awards such as sole-source and set-aside contracts. GAO previously reported on weaknesses in SBA's internal controls and problems with ensuring that only eligible firms participate in the program. GAO was asked to examine the steps SBA has taken to address these issues. This report (1) describes HUBZone designations and how SBA communicates with interested parties about the program, and (2) examines SBA's certification and recertification processes for firms.

To address these objectives, GAO analyzed statutory provisions, SBA documents, and federal procurement data. GAO also interviewed SBA and representatives from applicant firms (certified, decertified, and denied) and local economic development agencies located in four HUBZones selected for geographic diversity.

What GAO Recommends

SBA should (1) establish a mechanism to better ensure firms are notified of changes that could affect their participation in the program, and (2) assess the recertification process and implement additional controls, such as criteria and guidance for a risk-based approach to requesting and verifying information during recertification. SBA agreed with both recommendations.

For more information, contact William B.Shear at (202) 512-8678 or shearw@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, SBA improved its notifications to newly certified firms but not to other certified firms. For example, SBA's certification letter to firms with principal offices in a redesignated area specifically states that the firm is in a redesignated area, explains the implications of the designation, and notes when the redesignated status will expire. However, we found in March 2016 that SBA had not yet implemented changes to better ensure that all currently certified firms would be notified of changes that could affect their program eligibility. It is important that all certified firms potentially affected by such changes receive information about the changes or are made aware in a timely fashion of any effects on their program eligibility. As of February 2017, SBA had begun to improve its notifications to all firms. According to SBA officials, the agency has started sending program notices to all the firms in its portfolio. They told us that for its most recent notice in February 2017, the agency copied all the e-mail addresses in its HUBZone database and placed them in the e-mail distribution system. In March 2018, SBA officials informed us that they obtain monthly lists of certified firms generated by an Oracle system process and that analysts compare the new list to the prior list and add any new firms to the list.

    Recommendation: To improve SBA's administration and oversight of the HUBZone program and reduce the risk that firms that no longer meet program eligibility criteria receive HUBZone contracts, the Administrator of SBA should establish a mechanism to better ensure that firms are notified of changes to HUBZone designations that may affect their participation in the program, such as ensuring that all certified firms and newly certified firms are signed up for the broadcast e-mail system or including more specific information in certification letters about how location in a redesignated area can affect their participation in the program

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, SBA officials told us that they began automating the process to notify firms that were due for recertification. According to the officials, since September 2015, notification e-mails have been sent daily (compared with the former cycle of two times a year). Each firm due for recertification within the next 30 days would receive the notice. SBA sends a second e-mail to firms that have not responded within 45 days of the first notification. According to SBA officials, as of February 2017, this change has not yet eliminated the backlog. SBA officials informed GAO in May 2017 that they have developed risk-based guidance for conducting recertification reviews and requesting supporting documentation. According to SBA, any certified HUBZone small business concern that has received $1 million or more in HUBZone contract dollars since its initial certification (or its most recent recertification) must submit the following: (a) a list of all current employees, identifying the name of the employee, the employee's address, the number of hours worked per month, and the location where the employee performs his/her work; and (b) payroll documentation. While SBA officials stated that they had completed a risk assessment of their HUBZone recertification process, SBA had not provided GAO with documentation on when SBA performed the risk assessment, which risks were identified and considered, or what analysis established the $1 million threshold as of August 2018. GAO continues to believe that a risk assessment of the recertification process would help inform a risk-based approach to reviewing and verifying information from firms that appear to pose the most risk to the program.

    Recommendation: To improve SBA's administration and oversight of the HUBZone program and reduce the risk that firms that no longer meet program eligibility criteria receive HUBZone contracts, the Administrator of SBA should conduct an assessment of the recertification process and implement additional controls, such as developing criteria and guidance on using a risk-based approach to requesting and verifying firm information, allowing firms to initiate the recertification process, and ensuring that sufficient staff will be dedicated to the effort so that a significant backlog in recertifications does not recur.

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

 

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