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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Small Business Administration 1. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Small Business Administration 2. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Small Business Administration 3. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.

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