By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Oct. 22, 2013) -- The Army must "widen that aperture" to allow easier access for small businesses to find opportunity with the largest of America's military services.
During a discussion Oct. 21, at the 2013 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, in Washington, D.C., Under Secretary of the Army Dr. Joseph W. Westphal met with dozens of small business owners and representatives to hear their success stories on working with the Army as well as the challenges they face.
"How do I as the under secretary of the Army and the chief management officer of this department do something, at least in the Army, to help small businesses compete better?" Westphal asked them.
The AUSA annual meeting and exposition typically consists of three days of briefings and presentations by Army and command senior leaders. But before a room of small business representatives and owners, Westphal opted instead to let the audience speak, saying he wanted instead to have a "dialogue" with business representatives.
The under secretary said he wants to "find better and more significant ways to open that aperture for small businesses in the Army." That would include, he said, more than just Army websites that point out how well the Army is doing with small businesses. It would include finding ways to help small businesses engage better with the Army.
One small business owner said he thought that the Army might hold more "regular and useful advance briefings to industry." He told the secretary that some of the Army commands "do a really good job" in presenting advanced planning briefings for industry, known as APBIs, to small business owners.
Those APBIs spell out upcoming business opportunities that small businesses may opt to attempt to take advantage of. Other commands, he said, offer little more than "org charts."
Westphal acknowledged that the Army must do a better job of providing more meaningful and substantial APBIs to industry.
"No org charts. We'll put a memo out on that," he said, drawing a laugh from the audience.
During the short engagement, one Army civilian who works in a small business office said that the Army's small business workforce is too small. That workforce helps the Army interface with small businesses. In some places, she said, small business offices are "one deep."
"We do need your help with a couple of things," Westphal answered, addressing the audience. "Did you ever meet a politician who didn't' say 'I'm for jobs?'"
"We need you all to remind them to help push us to be more aggressive with small businesses," he said. "And what that means is that if they ask us those questions at hearings and they demand more information from us, then I think that will help us. It will help us to be able to put the dollars in the right place as well."
At the AUSA conference, hundreds of defense contractors have displays showcasing their business offerings. Many of those defense contractors, though, are small businesses. Their displays are eclipsed by the displays of the larger defense contractors who manufacture Army helicopters and combat vehicles.
During an interview with Army Broadcasting, Westphal said he likes to walk the display floor alone -- separate from the entourage of handlers and military officers that usually accompany him -- and talk to small businesses to see what they offer and how the Army can help them. He said these businesses are critical to both the nation and to the Army.
"What can we do to increase the opportunity for small businesses?" Westphal asked. "They are the heart of our nation's economic strength. Most jobs are in small business. Small businesses are the core and essence of our communities. The more we can persuade the big contractors to do more work with small businesses, and keep them viable, the better our country is."