White House officials have released a plan that they hope will help small businesses get more federal work by "unbundling" large contracts into smaller ones.

The government-wide plan, released Oct. 30, by the Office of Management and Budget, includes new regulatory proposals and other administrative steps, but not legislation. It was requested by President Bush in March as part of a multi-part proposal to help small businesses.

Under the plan, federal agencies will have to report to OMB by Jan. 31 on the status of contract bundling in their areas. OMB also will propose regulations by the same date to require reviews of contract bundling for task and delivery orders and multiple-award contract types.

In addition, OMB will propose rules by the end of January to mandate contract bundling reviews above dollar thresholds. Those contract-acquisition levels will vary by agency, but fall between $2 million and $7 million.

OMB also wants to ease the small-business impact of bundling by increasing prime contractors' compliance with subcontracting plans. Such compliance "has been inconsistent," OMB says. It will propose a rule to include subcontractor plan compliance as one factor in evaluating primes for future federal jobs.

Angela Styles, head of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, says, "The simple goal is to create a level playing field."

Dennis Day, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors says unbundling "increases the competition, which opens federal contracts up for smaller contractors."

He notes that the Bush and Clinton administrations had made some earlier efforts to reduce bundling, but it still exists. "So we really need to follow through with the programs and see that unbundling does work...and is implemented."

Hector Barreto, head of the Small Business Administration, told a gathering of small businesses the plan is "a great first step, but it's only a first step." Styles says the White House is "terribly committed" to following up with further action.

The 10-page strategy outline doesn't set goals for increased small business participation, in dollar volume or number of contracts. Styles says, "We may develop those," and if OMB does, those goals would "probably be agency-specific."

The federal pie is enormous, with total contract value of $234.9 billion in fiscal 2001. About 23% of the total goes to small companies. But the number of new federal contract awards plunged from 86,243 in fiscal 1991, to 34,261 in 2001. Moreover, while small firms' federal contract dollar volume has remained about constant, the number of small companies winning new contracts dropped from 26,506 in 1991 to 11,651 in 2000. Those trends indicate that bundling is rising and small-business opportunities to get federal contracts are decreasing, OMB says.