Military construction contracting officials touted their efforts to award work to small businesses at an industry conference last month, but attendees noted the procurements are fraught with issues, from slow-moving awards to bait-and-switch tactics by prime contractors.

Tracy Pinson, director of small-business programs for the U.S. Army, highlighted its "robust" small-business contracting program to the 1,900 attendees at the Society of Military Engineers event in suburban Washington, D.C. In fiscal 2011, the Army let approximately $90 billion in construction contracts to U.S. firms—close to $24 billion, or about 26%, went to small businesses. Other officials, such as Brig. Gen. Stephen Leisenring, commander of the mission and installation contracting command at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, noted impacts of the Army's own resource constraints, particularly in staffing.

However, a representative of a small Georgia-based construction and development firm pointed to the tension that can develop between large and small companies when large firms are too willing to push risk on to the small firms. Jackie Robinson-Burnette, associate director of the Office of Small Business, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, acknowledged that it is "very important" that DOD agencies make sure large businesses do not do a bait-and-switch by listing small firms on proposals with no intention of working with them. "We want to correct that problem," she told attendees at the Nov. 28-30 meeting.

Small businesses pointed to an audit released this summer of small-business contracting at the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Assistant Inspector General Belinda J. Finn testified before Congress in July that 76% of veteran-owned small businesses winning awards were not eligible in the category. She cited about $2.5 billion in contracts affected. "How do we get real numbers?" said Paul Curtis, CEO of Curtoom Cos. Inc., a small Florida contractor.

An official with a small Baltimore contractor cited the difficulties new firms have in trying to establish relationships. But Rear Adm. Kevin Slates, a NAVFAC commander, said, "We're always looking for competition."