This is the latest installment of a new CAP series called “Big Ideas for Small Business.” The weekly series aims to offer a collection of bold proposals that taken together will form a progressive pro-business agenda for the small- and medium-sized companies—and future big companies—our economic competitiveness depends on.
In this space CAP’s economic policy team will offer a weekly pro-growth alternative to the simplistic conservative advocacy for irresponsible tax policy and unaccountable government that are hardly the real priorities of small businesses—and that will do nothing to boost economic growth and ensure widely shared prosperity.
The problem: Programs to help small businesses are spread throughout the federal government
For small-business owners the sprawling online presence of the federal government is just one in a long line of obstacles to navigate as their enterprises grow. Multiple departments and agencies manage programs that may be useful for small businesses—everything from grants and loans to helpful information about exporting goods.
You might think that the Small Business Administration would be the go-to place for all things small business—but that assumption leaves out loan programs administered by the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, among others. “It’s hard to know which [loan] is best for you if they aren’t all in one place,” says Christine Koronides, who oversees small-business policy for the White House National Economic Council.
The recent “State of the Federal Web” report conducted, among other things, an inventory of federal websites. Fifty-six federal agencies publish 1,489 top-level .gov domains—and a dizzying 11,013 lower-level websites. This isn’t a knot that Google can untangle on its own—important information can be buried in poorly formatted .pdf or .doc files that search engines may not be able to parse.
The solution: BusinessUSA.gov, a one-stop online shop for small business
In October the White House announced the new BusinessUSA, which will “implement a ‘no wrong door’ policy for small businesses and exporters by using technology to quickly connect businesses to the services and information relevant to them.” Slated to launch this month, BusinessUSA will pull together information from agencies across government, including the Commerce Department, export agencies, the Small Business Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.
“This isn’t just about navigating the federal infrastructure,” says Steven VanRoekel, federal chief information officer. “It’s about national priorities.” The hope is that by making information about grants, loans, and exports more accessible, these priorities—including creating jobs and boosting exports—will be easier for businesses to achieve.
The BusinessUSA site has been built with input from business and VanRoekel promises that process will continue. “When we go live, we’ll have the ability for businesses to give us real feedback on the site as we progress,” he says, noting that BusinessUSA’s goals hinge on “continuous improvement.”
In addition to the BusinessUSA aggregator, the White House plans to launch a related call-in line and to integrate BusinessUSA “widgets” into other federal websites. “If you’re somewhere in the federal web presence and there’s information around business, you can go there and connect back to the main BusinessUSA site,” VanRoekel says.
Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer, stresses that BusinessUSA will follow an open implementation model, allowing search engines and other sites to easily access and consume the information gathered there. “We want to make sure this information is discoverable more generally, not just on BusinessUSA,” Chopra says.
There is still work to be done beyond launching BusinessUSA, the associated call center, and widgets for other federal sites. The “State of the Federal Web” report clearly identifies several areas for improvement in the government’s online presence. For instance, only 35 percent of agencies report having standardized web policies and procedures; 19 percent of top-level domains are identified as “inactive”; and most agencies report not having a consistent, agencywide web design. The government should cull inactive sites and urge agencies to adhere to uniform design standards as first steps toward making the federal web easier to navigate.
The administration should also aggressively market BusinessUSA, beginning by highlighting it in the president’s State of the Union address and urging business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce to promote the site to its members. “Part of the challenge is that folks don’t think of the government as a resource,” says Rhett Buttle of the Small Business Majority, a Washington-based advocacy group. In addition to access to capital and information about exporting, Buttle identifies health care, retirement planning, and hiring as areas where small businesses often struggle. “A lot of small businesses don’t have human resources directors,” he says, “And they’re really looking for tools and resources⎯for instance, ‘How do I write a job description?’ It sounds simple, but there are some things that folks just haven’t done.”
VanRoekel says that businesses of all sizes had a similar request when the BusinessUSA process began: “Make it easy for me to find the things I need.” That’s an ideal that more government sites should strive to achieve for business—and for citizens.
Kristina Costa is a Special Assistant at the Center for American Progress.