How The New York Times Co. became a small business

March 19, 2012 by

Perhaps for as long as the federal government has reported which of its contracts have been awarded to small businesses, critics have charged that many of those contracts have actually gone to large companies — often very large companies.

Recently, the American Small Business League, perhaps the loudest of those critics, tried to outline the scope of diversion. The association issued a report that studied the 100 companies that won the most federal small-business contract dollars in 2011 and found that at least 72 of them either had too many employees or too much revenue to be  eligible for government assistance to small business. (S.B.A. size standards vary by industry and sector, but generally a company must have fewer than 500 employees or less than $7 million to be considered small.)

The federal government, the world’s largest buyer of goods and service, is obliged by law to try to direct 23 percent of its purchases to small businesses, though there are no penalties for failure. The government hasn’t reached that goal in years, and while recording a deal with a bigger business as a small-business contract — whether by mistake or by fraud — does not necessarily mean that a small company has been denied an opportunity, it does exaggerate the government’s contracting achievement. In the view of Elliott Rosenfeld, of the league, said that in turn undermined the case for stronger enforcement of contracting rules. And by inflating an agency’s sense of achievement, it could weaken the agency’s drive to award more contracts to small businesses.

S.B.A. officials, for their part, insist the league’s analysis is premature. This summer, the S.B.A. will release its own report on the government’s contracting efforts in 2011, said a spokeswoman, Hayley Meadvin, after spending months reviewing the records. “By the time we release our fiscal year report, we have corrected these mistakes,” she said. “We spend a lot time making sure our data is as clean as can be.”

Moreover, the league has been prone to sweeping accusations. The group called this latest report, for instance, “strong evidence that large companies are the fraudulent recipients of the majority of federal small-business contracts every year.” But even if improperly coded contracts are as pervasive as the association claims, is it necessarily the result of fraud?

The Agenda decided to look at one large company, mentioned incidentally in the report, that won small business contracts in 2011, to try to find out: The New York Times Company. The Times was not among the league’s list of 100; it was identified as one of 55 well-known corporations that received small-business contracts last year when it sold $56,821 worth of newspapers to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. — 500 daily subscriptions for the 28 weeks school is in session, according to Carol D’Andrea, The Times’s circulation manager for sales to schools and colleges.

In the government’s record of the West Point transaction, known as a contact action report, The Times is described as having $3 billion in revenue — and 10 employees. (Both figures were wrong: in 2011, the company’s revenue was $2.3 billion and the work force totaled 7,273 employees, according to the most recent annual report.) In a field labeled “Contracting Officer’s Business Size Selection,” the document describes The Times as a “small business.” Under government size standards, newspaper publishers must have fewer than 500 employees to be considered small.

Our inquiry began with a call to West Point. The contracting officer who approved the deal, Kathleen Judson, said in a brief interview that she had not designated The New York Times as a small business. “The only way that could have happened is that it must have been prepopulated,” she said. “Sometimes the fields come through on the contract action report prepropulated. I know The New York Times is a large company.”

Here’s where it starts to get complicated — and government officials contacted by The Agenda offered little help in clearing up the confusion. S.B.A. officials spoke authoritatively about the agency’s efforts to correct contracting records, but referred our questions about how those records are created to the General Services Administration, which oversees the procurement infrastructure used across the government. The G.S.A.’s deputy press secretary, Adam Elkington, initially sent us to the Army for answers, then later promised to find us a colleague who could answer basic contracting questions. (He never did.) A spokesman for West Point, Frank DeMaro, wrote down our questions but did not answer them. Eventually, Daniel Elkins, a spokesman for the Army’s Mission and Installation Contracting Command at Fort Sam Houston, in Texas, fielded some of our queries.

This is what we know: every entity selling to the government must sign up with the G.S.A.’s Central Contractor Registration with a unique identification number, known as a DUNS number, from Dun & Bradstreet. The vendor supplies its annual revenue and employee headcount for the entire organization, which the S.B.A. uses to determine whether the entity is a small business. What complicates things is that companies must register each legal division, or any office with a separate location or address separately. The New York Times currently has at least three active contractor registrations. One of these was set up by Ms. D’Andrea and her colleagues in The Times’s Education Sales department in order, she said, to sell the subscriptions to West Point.

The Times is not identified as a small business in the Education Sales department’s registration. It turns out, though, that West Point did not use this registration to pay The Times. Instead, the contract refers to the DUNS number used by another registered Times Company entity, this one made by the TimesCenter, an event hall at the company’s headquarters on Eighth Avenue. In that registration, The Times did identify itself as a small business.

A Times Company spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said by e-mail that the employees who initially registered the TimesCenter were no longer employed there. But, she said, when the TimesCenter first opened, “it was operated as an independent business, separate from The New York Times Company. It is possible that the small-business designation was one that fit at the time, but again, we do not know for sure.” Ms. Murphy said she did not know whether the TimesCenter was independently owned at the time or just operated as if it were. Today, she said, it is operated as part of The New York Times. Nor could she say whether, or why, a Times employee entered the inaccurate revenue and headcount figures.

At West Point, neither Ms. Judson or Mr. DeMaro have explained why Ms. Judson used the registration from the TimesCenter rather than the one from the Education Sales department. (In an e-mail, the Army’s Mr. Elkins said “multiple actions between the N.Y. Times registration of DUNS numbers and contracting officer actions makes it difficult to identify the exact sequence of events.”) But Ms. Meadvin of the S.B.A. disputed the claim that the business size field was automatically filled in, saying, “to our knowledge” it is “the only field that is manually entered.” Mr. Elkington of the G.S.A. did not respond to our request seeking clarification.

In any event, government contracting officers like Ms. Judson are not supposed to rely on information from the Central Contractor Registration to determine whether a business is small — the registration record says as much at the very top. Instead, they are obligated to verify size, or any other claims a company makes, with a separate database known as the Online Representations and Certifications Application, or ORCA — which imports size information from the Central Contractor Registration. (Filling out this form, Ms. D’Andrea said, “is worse than filling out your taxes. Just the password is 16 digits and you can’t have repeating letters and numbers.”)

However, while the Education Sales department submitted an ORCA form — and did not claim small-business status — the TimesCenter, the entity on the contract, never did complete the form. According to Mr. Elkins of the Army, “Before the contracts were awarded, the contracting officer observed that there were no Online Representations and Certifications Application records for The New York Times.” The officer then tried to verify The Times’s size, Mr. Elkins said, by turning to yet another database, the Dynamic Small Business Search maintained by the S.B.A., “using the DUNS that was initially provided by The N.Y. Times.” But, said Mr. Elkins, “this procedure was improper and led to the miscoded award; the Army should have asked for this information from the N.Y. Times, rather than relying upon the D.S.B. search engine.”

But if a record for a Times entity existed in the Dynamic Small Business database last year, it is gone now, and this explanation raises additional questions. Which DUNS number did The Times provide to the Army — the one that ended up on the contract, from the TimesCenter, or one from the education sales department? Moreover, if Ms. Judson knew The Times was in fact a large business, why would she conduct a Dynamic Small Business search in the first place? Finally, the actions described here suggest Ms. Judson did in fact have to manually enter the vendor’s business size in the contract, as the S.B.A. has maintained. (Mr. Elkins has not responded to requests for further explanation.)

As it happens, three other federal agencies have used the TimesCenter registration as the basis for contracts in recent years — apparently erroneously, since these agencies were buying newspaper ads, not renting out an event space — and in most of those contract action reports, The Times is described as “other than small.” And yet, for one contract with the Securities and Exchange Commission, The Times was again deemed a small business. The contract officer in that instance referred the Agenda to the S.E.C. press office to set up an interview, which a spokesman has thus far declined to do.

And that’s as far as we have been able to get. We still can’t say with certainty how The Times ended up with a small-business contract. What we did find was a record-keeping system so complex that it invites confusion and error from all parties. “We hear from our small-business members that navigating the federal marketplace is extremely confusing and complex,” said Molly Brogan, a spokeswoman for the National Small Business Association, an advocacy group based in Washington. “Perhaps some level of simplification — along with enhanced oversight and repercussions for those that knowingly miscode a large business as small — would alleviate some of these issues.”

Things may improve this year, when the G.S.A. is to merge the two separate contractor databases into one as part of a bigger move to consolidate all of the different systems — nine of them! — that constitute the government’s “Integrated Acquisition Environment.” According to Ms. Meadvin, the S.B.A. believes that eventually the system will operate the way the people at West Point seem to believe it already does: business size representations from ORCA will be among the data automatically entered into the contract action report.

But for now, small-business advocates bemoan a system that allows everyone involved to evade responsibility for their actions. “The ‘pass the blame’ game you’ve seen from the S.B.A. and the Army is highly indicative of a lack of accountability by the federal employees whose duty it is to ensure that the contracting process is handled professionally and fairly,” said Mr. Rosenfeld of the league. “The erroneous entry into C.C.R. by The Times is also an example of how a large company’s negligence can contribute to the problem.

“Contract error and mismanagement amounts to tens of billions of dollars’ worth of contracts a year being diverted away from small business,” he added. “With such faulty standards of oversight, accountability and transparency, we wonder how easy it must be to hide fraud in the federal contracting process.”

– by ROBB MANDELBAUM, The New York Times, Mar. 15, 2012; this article appears at http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/how-the-new-york-times-became-a-small-business.

SAM deployment likely to be delayed; GSA might replace DUNS

October 25, 2011 by

A General Services Administration (GSA) effort to consolidate federal online acquisition systems will likely receive no development money during the current fiscal year, causing GSA officials to anticipate a delay in the project.

However, GSA officials are going forward with a planned sources sought notice, to be released shortly, seeking private sector input on the viability of replacing mandatory federal vendor acquirement of a DUNS number from Dun & Bradstreet with a government-generated unique identifier.

If the government does replace DUNS with its own unique identifier system for vendors, the transition would likely be tied to the third phase of the online acquisition system consolidation effort, said Kathleen Turco, head of GSA’s office of governmentwide policy, during an Oct. 21 interview.

The integration effort seeks to consolidate 9 currently separate systems into one, to be known as the System for Award Management, or SAM. IBM received a $74.4 million contract in 2010 to develop the SAM architecture; part of the consolidation effort includes unifying the currently disparate databases into a single, unified one.

Because GSA received $7 million in development funds during fiscal 2011, which ended on Sept. 30, it will be able to proceed with the first phase of the consolidation, which will tie together Central Contractor Registration, Online Representations and Certifications Application and the Excluded Parties List System.

Starting in May, front-end users will find that they have to log onto SAM only once to access the functionalities of all three systems, Turco said.

However, a request for $15 million in development, modernization and enhancement money for the current fiscal year has bumped up against spending constraints; the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of GSA’s fiscal 2012 spending bill denied the request in total. The House version would appropriate about $3 million in DME money for the project, Turco said. Congress has yet to pass any fiscal 2012 appropriations bill; the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution that expires on midnight of Nov. 18.

As a result of the House and Senate marks, Turco said GSA will likely postpone roll out of phase 2, under which GSA plans to consolidate FedBizOps, the Electronic Subcontracting Reporting System, and the Assistance Program Catalog. Originally, GSA had planned to unveil that phase in the spring of 2013; if GSA receives sufficient funding for fiscal 2013, it would be able to complete that phase in spring 2014, Turco said.

The third phase would consolidate FPDS , Wage Determinations Online and the Past Performance Information Retrieval System. The earliest phase 3 could now be completed–it was originally planned for spring 2014–is now spring 2015, Turco said.

It’s in conjunction with phase 3 that GSA would likely also transition from using DUNS as a unique vendor identifier to a government-generated number, if GSA decides to do so, Turco added.

Vendors wishing to do business with the government must receive a unique identifier–in some cases, more than one, depending on the number of physical locations and legal divisions a company has–and GSA has long contracted with Dun & Bradstreet for government vendors to receive Data Universal Numbering System identifier for free.

But, the government pays Dun & Bradstreet $18 million a year for the service, making it the single most expensive element of the Integrated Acquisition Environment, the name GSA gives to 9 systems set for consolidation into SAM.

“We’ve had a lot of push on us from the Hill and many vendors have said to us ‘Why is it only Dun and Bradstreet?’” Turco said.

However, replacing DUNS would be no easy task, she acknowledged, since DUNS are used in financial systems to pay vendors and have become deeply integrated into IAE feeder systems.

– by David Perera, Fierce Government IT, Oct. 24, 2011 – http://www.fiercegovernmentit.com/story/turco-sam-deployment-likely-be-delayed-gsa-might-replace-duns/2011-10-22?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal

Government Contracting Made Easier

July 19, 2010 by

Doing business with the government requires a learning curve, but can be rewarding.

You’ve probably seen the pitches on late-night television for books promising you an easy way to win big government contracts.  Maybe you’ve received telemarketing calls, emails or faxes promising you the same thing.  Buy our books, CDs, and subscription services and you’ll be rolling in free government dollars in no time – it’s easy, they say.

We hate to burst your bubble, but that’s not the way it works.  And government contracting is not easy.

Government contracting can be made easier, however, if you commit yourself to learning about it.  You must do market research, follow instructions meticulously, and take advantage of legitimate resources available to your business.    If you are tenacious and pay attention to detail, your business can be successful in transitioning from the commercial sector into the vast government marketplace.

Here are a few of the initial steps you should take to prepare yourself for landing government contracts.  These are “must do’s.”

1. Make sure you obtain a federal tax identification number, often referred to as a TIN or an EIN.  Because so many government databases are public information, it’s a big mistake to operate your business under your Social Security number — doing so will increase your risk of identity theft. 

2. If your business is less than two years old, be sure to take advantage of the business start-up services offered by the network of Small Business Development Centers across the state of Georgia.  Find the office nearest you at www.sbdc.uga.edu.

3. If you’re outside the Atlanta area, you’ll also want to get acquainted with the Georgia Entrepreneur & Small Business Program, a partnership between UGA and Georgia Tech, supported by the One Georgia Authority. You can find details and resources at http://onega.gamep.org.

4. Obtain a DUNS number.  Call 1-866-705-5711 to obtain one free of charge in 5-10 minutes.  Don’t let anybody talk you into paying for a DUNS number.

5. Understand that government agencies buy everything “by the number.” Literally every category of product and service has one or more numbers assigned to it.  And there’s no person more qualified than you to look up the numbers that apply to your business.  You need to look up NAICS codes, Federal Supply and Product Codes, and NIGP codes, the latter used by state and local governments when they purchase.  This can be done on-line; more information on that in just a moment.

6. Figure out whether your business is a small business.  Small businesses often have competitive advantages in government contracting, but you can’t just guess whether you meet the standards – you have to know for sure.  There’s a process for doing this, just as there is a process for determining whether your business falls into any socio-economic categories for which there may be government purchasing preferences.

7. Register in the granddaddy of all vendor databases – Central Contractor Registration.  Over 600,000 firms are registered there already, and if you want to be found by government contracting officials, you need to be there, too.  It’s free, and can be a great marketing tool … if you register correctly.  A large percentage of the business listings in CCR contain mistakes or are incomplete.  You don’t want to be one of them.  Government contracting officials are interested in doing business with companies that pay attention to detail.

8. Register in other government databases where you want to market your business.  The city and county where your business is located are great places to start, and don’t forget about registering as a vendor with the State of Georgia.   Once registered properly, many units of government actually will send you emails every time they are getting ready to buy something that you sell – but, remember, you’ll receive accurate emails only if you’ve looked up your codes correctly (remember step 5?).

9. Get help along the way.  There’s an award-winning, no-cost service available to you as a Georgia business.  It’s the Georgia Tech Procurement Assistance Center (GTPAC), and it’s operated by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute.  GTPAC has offices in nine cities across the state, and at each location classes are taught on every aspect of government contracting.  In addition, Procurement Counselors are available at each GTPAC location.  They have decades of government contracting experience and, once you are signed-up as a client, they will provide you with one-on-one instruction. 

In calendar year 2009, GTPAC’s clients won almost $700 million in government contracts.  But none of these successful contractors will tell you it was easy.  They likely will tell you, though, that it was made easier with GTPAC’s help.

Want to take advantage of GTPAC’s services?  Click on the TRAINING tab at the top of this page and register for the “Introduction to Government Contracting” class in a location convenient to you. You’ll learn all about the steps outlined in this article … and much, much more!

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