This, the third and final article in the series, " In Pursuit of Federal A/E Contracts," continues to discuss the problem of inequitable distribution of federal A/E contracts, which was introduced in the second article, and makes suggestions as to how a more equitable system might be achieved.

Federal A/E Contracts: If Ignorance Is Bliss...

by Barrie Creedon and George T. Manos

Statistics published in the 1994 Architecture Factbook show that the typical American architectural practice has nine or fewer employees. So, you might expect that the federal government would award most of its A/E contracts to firms having from one to nine employees. However, our research suggests that the federal goverment awards A/E contracts primarily to atypical firms -- those with ten or more employees -- which comprise only about 14% of the profession.

We believe this situation is largely the result of being uninformed (both contracting personnel and architects), as well as an unfortunate tendency on the part of federal agencies to view themselves as somehow needing more attention from their architectural consultants than do other types of clients - public or private. The answers below from contracting people in response to the question: "Why do you tend to award contracts to the larger firms?" reflect some of the attitudes perpetuating the problem:

As mentioned, both federal contracting personnel and architects need to develop a better understanding of one another. Contracting people have little idea of either the size or capability (we're using the common meaning here) of the average architectural practice; most are blissfully unaware that current federal contracting practices effectively limit competition for contracts to only the very largest firms. On the other hand, most architects don't realize that they're being discriminated against either. Many have little understanding of the basics of the process: i.e. how to present their firms in the SF 254 and SF 255, or how their paperwork will be evaluated.

It is up to the architectural community to educate itself about the whole process as well as to educate the federal government about the realities of the profession. The first step to educating yourself is to find out who handles A/E contracting for the government agencies in your area. (Your local chapter of the AIA should be able to point you in the right direction.) Most contracting people are more than happy to explain how solicitation responses are reviewed, and to give you advice on how to improve your responses. Keep in mind that agency standards and guidelines vary, so what a person from the Army Corps of Engineers tells you may not apply to how things are done by the Department of the Interior.

Educating federal contracting personnel will take organization, and should start with your congressional representatives. (Contracting people can't make policy, they can only carry it out.) Letters, face-to-face meetings, and presentations can help get the message across. The more your colleagues get involved, the better. Some points to consider addressing include:

Originally, we undertook this research project only to learn for ourselves what types of firms tend to get federal work, and how our firm measured up in comparison. While we assumed all along that large firms get more than their share, we were astounded at how much more than their fair share they receive. Being a six-person firm (at present), we found this somewhat discouraging, but we are continuing in our efforts to improve our paperwork, to learn what the various agencies are looking for, to increase our "capability" by joint-venturing, and to seek subconsulting opportunities with larger firms. We invite you to share with us your experiences with federal contracting.

Data used in this article comes from the 1994 edition of the Architecture Factbook published by the American Institute of Architects; Profile, an on-line directory provided by the American Institute of Architects, and the Commerce Business Daily published by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Government Printing Office.

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