I’m a federal contractor.
Well, not quite. I’ve never bid on, much less received a federal contract. The closest I’ve come is as a services provider to a subcontractor to a contractor. Not that I couldn’t do work for the government. It’s just that I have plenty of work to keep me busy and I don’t do, so far as I know, all that much that the government needs. If an agency needs a good writer (right?) I’m available.
But I was thinking about GSA’s problems with SAM, the System for Award Management. SAM is an attempt to amalgamate eight contractor databases into one, publicly searchable portal. It launched, sort of, in July and has been problematic. So much so that the agency’s acting head, Dan Tangherlini (whose life must be one, endless itch) hauled the project out of the Office of Governmentwide Policy and gave it to the operational side of the house. Now it is up to CIO Casey Coleman and acting commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service Mary Davie to fix.
But having heard horror stories, I decided – impulsively at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon – to register my one person business (not counting my wife, who keeps the family finances, or my greyhound, Lizzie) with SAM.
About 90 minutes later I had a complete registration that must marinate for a few days while checks are run, I presume with the IRS and maybe Homeland Security to confirm that I am not a tax-evading terrorist.
The first few steps were easy, just creating a basic account with name and address, not unlike any online registration form. Once confirmed, the real work begins, with your “registration overview.” Good thing I read all of the registration information page – I realized at once I’d need a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number.
Off to the Dun & Bradstreet site, which has a special button for people needing a DUNS number for federal registration purposes. D&B crashed on me midway through trying to get a number. I found out later it doesn’t like Safari. So I started over and had an online chat with “Patrick.” That’s a feature on many large-company sites nowadays – you go there and instantly someone live wants to chat via a pop-up window. I chatted with Patrick, who gave me a call moments later, and gave me an 866 number for D&B.
There, I got fast and excellent advice, first from Gwen who handed me over to Joanie. Joanie walked me through some questions only to discover that’s I’d had a DUNS number for years. I just never knew it. D&B somehow finds out about new businesses and if they are active, they assign a DUNS number. I think their information comes from tax and credit records, since I do file a quarterly business tax with the IRS in addition to my annual filing as an employee of my broadcasting company. Joanie corrected a few little things like the name of where I live (it’s the City of Rockville, but we have a Potomac, MD ZIP code).
Armed with a DUNS number, registering my little business with SAM was mostly a breeze. One issue was, if within a given section you must edit something when presented with that option, you’ve got to click through all of the screens in that section over again. But the data entry doesn’t disappear.
Most questions are easy to answer. They ask you about the myriad of federal concerns over whether you are disadvantaged, foreign-owned, use toxic materials, a tax cheat, under indictment, and on and on.
One daunting page, “Certification and Disclosure Regarding Payments to Influence Certain Federal Transactions” contained a long list of laws and Federal Acquisition Regulations to read and certify yourself as meeting or not meeting. It was a little daunting. But the popups under the associated links were brief and clear, and so I proceeded.
Registering was easier than a tax return, and not much harder than a credit card application. But when I got to the end, I found I’d mistyped my own web site URL. At each phase, SAM lets you edit your answers before moving on to the next section. I edited the URL and then couldn’t quite figure out how to get to the final page where you submit the whole thing.
So I did what any red-blooded American would do. I called the 866 help number. It turns out the help desk for SAM participants is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays. The initial automated voice said to expect a 30 minute wait. But when I pushed the button for SAM help (among all of the database systems you can call for help about), Cherilyn came on within seconds. She was crisp, friendly and seemed to know SAM cold. She told me where to navigate, what to expect to come up on the screen, and within a minute I had my “congratulations” notice that I was in.
This was a Friday late afternoon. My wife was already mixing the martinis. Cherilyn told me I could expect validation from the IRS within three to five business days. But Saturday afternoon the e-mail confirming the match came in.
So I have to say, in this corner of government, at least registering your business under SAM comes via a Web site and customer service that matches the best available commercially. But the site developers need to make a few adjustments to make it clearer how to navigate throughout the multi page application. That’s a quibble more than a critique, because the site works really well. I can’t of course comment on the work IBM has done to make SAM useful to contracting officers. The meshing of all those databases could turn out to be impossibly complex, but at least that problem doesn’t translate into what small businesses see.