Interior “Equity Action Plan” Addresses Small Business Concerns

By Prianka Sharma, Assistant Chief Counsel

On January 25, 2021, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 13985, which directs the heads of federal agencies to evaluate whether existing agency practices create barriers for public participation, specifically underserved populations.[1] In response, on April 14, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior (Interior) published an Equity Action Plan. The plan outlines Interior’s efforts to remove barriers to access in agency programs.

As part of its action plan, Interior held five listening sessions to gather feedback on barriers that Americans face when interacting with the agency. Interior also accepted written comments on their action plan. The request for comments was an opportunity for Advocacy to address longstanding challenges small businesses have faced in interacting with Interior.

Advocacy published a regulatory alert to notify small businesses about the action plan and hosted teleconferences with interested small business representatives. The details of Advocacy’s outreach are summarized in a public comment letter sent to Interior in November 2021.  

Advocacy heard from outdoor industries including tour guides, outdoor recreation outfitters, and motorcoach operators as well as from non-profits and rural cooperatives. Advocacy also drew upon prior comment letters and historic concerns from small businesses who interact with Interior.

Small businesses noted several challenges in interacting with Interior. Small rural electric cooperatives noted challenges with critical habitat designations, stating that Interior does not often consider the costs to small electric cooperatives who are non-profits and whose consumers bear the burden of cost increases. These cooperatives are often in low-income areas.

Small tour operators, outfitters and guides noted challenges with the procurement process. These small businesses frequently do not know about procurement opportunities or lack the time to create a sophisticated proposal. Others spoke about a lack of familiarity with who they need to contact for information at the agency, inconsistencies in the information they received, and overall confusion with Interior processes. Advocacy has published a fact sheet outlining the key issues these businesses face.

Advocacy is pleased that Interior considered and incorporated some of the concerns from small businesses in its Equity Action Plan. Below is an outline of Advocacy’s comments and whether and how they were addressed in the plan:

Advocacy CommentInterior Response
Reconsider how comments are sought and collected. Additionally, offer increased opportunities for virtual participation and varied schedule.Change policies to ensure enough time is provided to all business types to develop competitive responses to solicitations.
Offer additional agency guidance, trainings, and mentorship opportunities to small, disadvantaged businesses regarding the concessions contract bidding process.  Streamline information provided to unsuccessful bidders after the contract is awarded so that new entrants and other businesses can apply lessons learned to future bids.
Publish an acquisition data tool to provide detailed information about purchasing history to allow new entrants a means to identify networking opportunities.
Produce graphics-based guides and on-demand learning.
Develop a small business counseling and education toolkit to be used internally by procurement offices to drive internal cultural changes.
Streamline permitting process for special events and other permits to reduce length, burden, and cost.Not addressed in the equity plan.
Offer entry-level programs within the national park systems to attract new users and look to contract with new small businesses to ensure diversity and equity among vendors.Create clear instructions as to how to partner with Interior sites for programming, including how to apply for funding.
Offer technical assistance for programs interested in becoming partners with Interior.
Promote partner programs on Interior communication channels, media, etc.
Consider the impacts of critical habitat designations on regulated entities and exclude areas that, based on the science, are not good for species conservation.Not addressed in the equity plan.

Advocacy hopes that by acknowledging and including these issues in its action plan, Interior will find solutions to the issues raised by the small business community and in turn help reduce their overall burden.

[1] Executive Order 13985, Advancing “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” 86 Fed. Reg. 7009 (January 25, 2021).