Ever since The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 eliminated self-certification for the WOSB program, woman-owned small businesses have been in a bit of limbo.
Despite this regulatory change, the SBA has been accepting woman-owned small business self-certification as a legitimate option. As the new GAO report suggests, however, there is a concern that the SBA’s continued acceptance of the WOSB self-certification may allow ineligible businesses to get contracts.
Some legal experts contend that third-party certification is now the only acceptable, viable, and risk-free option for woman-owned small businesses, regardless of the SBA’s current guidance toward self-certification. In fact, until the SBA adopts a formal certification process, a protest initiated by a third-party certified WOSB against a self-certified WOSB might be the only way this gets decided once and for all.
Recently, we learned that at least one Air Force Contracting Officer had deemed a self-certified WOSB ineligible for award. During a Govology webcast, a self-certified WOSB participant shared that she submitted a quote to the Air Force and appeared to be the successful offeror, but was informed by the Contracting Officer that she was ineligible for award because she did not have third-party certification.
We followed up with the owner of the WOSB firm for additional information and permission to publish her story. Below is a summary of her case.
On February 28, 2017, an RFQ solicitation for Medical Waste Disposal was issued by the Department of The Air Force as a 100% WOSB Set Aside. Hunter Pacific Group, a self-certified WOSB based out of San Diego California submitted a timely response to the RFQ and was the apparent successful offeror. However, the owner of the business received a call from the Contracting Officer asking for her third-party certification. When she replied that she was self-certified, the contracting officer advised her that she had to be certified by a SBA-approved third-party certifier to be eligible for the award.
We reached out to both the Contracting Officer as well as the SBA WOSB Program office in Washington D.C. for comment. It appears that the Contracting Officer who issued the decision in this case was not working with the agency any longer. We did receive a quick reply from the SBA WOSB Program Manager who answered our questions.
Question: Is the SBA’s Guidance still for WOSBs to self-certify if they would prefer not to pay the fee for third-party certification?
Answer: Yes it is.
Question: If a WOSB properly self-certifies and is deemed ineligible for contract award by an agency, what actions would the SBA recommend the WOSB take? Should they protest, or can they call the SBA and have you weigh in with the Contracting Officer? Also, if calling SBA is an option, should they call your office or the local district office?
Answer: In this case, the CO made an eligibility determination for which he or she does not have authority. FAR 19.1503(c)(2) and 13 CFR 127.300(e) provide that a business concern may self-certify as a WOSB or an EDWOSB and provide all of the required documents to the WOSB Program Repository. FAR also provides that the CO shall file a status protest if there is information that questions the eligibility of a concern, or the concern fails to provide all of the required documents to verify its eligibility. If the firm files a protest with GAO, GAO will request that SBA to provide a response. Yes, feel free to pass along my contact information to any contracting officers who have questions on the WOSB Program.
Question: Is the SBA developing a formal certification process for WOSBs that doesn’t include a fee, and if so is there an estimated timeframe of when this might take effect?
Answer: Yes, it is. The goal is to publish the final rule implementing a certification program by the end of this calendar year.
Question: Can agencies deny an award to self-certified WOSB firms solely because they lack third- party certification?
Answer: No, they may not.
So What Should You Do As An Eligible WOSB?
We understand that this uncertainty can be frustrating for woman-owned small businesses. Here is our suggestion, which has been consistent ever since the elimination of self-certification.
Option 1 – Sign up for third-party certification and ease your mind. Yes, there will be a fee involved, but you will gain some peace of mind, and there will be no question about your eligibility. You should also consider how much losing out on an opportunity would potentially cost your business. Also, if you are interested in subcontracting opportunities, some large primes now require WOSBs to show proof of third-party certification to be eligible for subcontract awards. Here is a list of SBA approved third-party certifiers.
- El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
- National Women Business Owners Corporation
- US Women’s Chamber of Commerce
- Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC)
Option 2: If you prefer not to pay the fee associated with third-party certification and remain self-certified until there is more guidance from the SBA, we suggest the following.
- Sign up to receive email updates from Govology (CLICK HERE to subscribe). When we receive additional information regarding the status of WOSB program, we will send out an update to keep you in the know.
- If you are ever denied an opportunity from a federal agency because you lack third-party certification, immediately contact the SBA’s WOSB Program Manager in Washington D.C. Ms. Amy Kim via email at Amy.Kim@SBA.GOV. You can also call the SBA Answer Desk at 1-800-U-ASK-SBA (1-800-827-5722). Based on SBA feedback above, it appears that if a CO disputes your eligibility as a WOSB, the proper process is for them to file a status protest, which apparently didn’t happen in the case we shared.
- Ensure you have completed the entire self-certification process and submitted the requisite documents to the SBA’s WOSB Repository. Eligibility criteria for the WOSB program and the self-certification process are available on the SBA’s website at https://www.sba.gov/contracting/government-contracting-programs/women-owned-small-businesses/what-you-need-know-if-you-are-women-owned-small-business. Your local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) can also assist in helping you determine your eligibility and complete the self-certification process at no out of pocket cost to you. Click here and use the mapping tool to find a PTAC in your state.
We would like to thank Hunter Pacific Group for sharing their story and hope this article provides a little more clarity and direction for woman-owned small businesses.
Co-Founder of Govology