SBA Spent $30M on Digital Service-Built App That Doesn't Work


The Small Business Administration’s Certify website—built by a team from the U.S. Digital Service—was doomed by poor oversight and failure to abide by federal IT policies, says inspector general.

After five years, $30 million and outside support from a tiger team of tech experts from the U.S. Digital Service, the Small Business Administration’s online small business verification program, Certify, is ineffective and being scrapped.

“Certify was intended to improve SBA’s contracting programs by streamlining the certification process and creating a single portal where business owners and SBA analysts could benefit from more security, ease of use, efficiency, and flexibility,” according to a report from the SBA Inspector General.

By offering a web portal for small businesses to apply for 8(a) status, SBA “intended to create an online certification process that replaced cumbersome paper forms, allowing users to complete questions that apply only to their company and share uploaded documents across multiple certification applications.”

Meanwhile, on the agency side, Certify was meant to be a single, cloud-based portal where analysts could find relevant program data, rather than having to sift through reams of papers and disparate databases.

However, after spending more than $30 million on the app’s development, “it does not have many of the essential search, analytical, and reporting tools it was supposed to have,” the IG wrote.

“To compensate for Certify’s shortcomings, program analysts must use labor intensive methods external to the Certify platform, reducing Certify’s expected benefits for both SBA contracting program analysts and program participants,” the report states.

The report goes into detail on many of the app’s failings. Perhaps the starkest was a 50% increase in the time to process new 8(a) applications, from 91 days in fiscal 2017 to an average of 138 days in 2019. The IG attributed this increase to specific productivity issues with the Certify app, as well as the historic 35-day government shutdown at the start of 2019.

As of September 2019, SBA plans to scrap the Certify app and migrate the useful functionality to a new system being developed by a contractor. However, the IG warned that the same systemic oversight issues could doom the next effort to failure, as well.

The agency has been working for some time to overhaul the aging IT systems used to verify small, minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses.

The report reaches back to development of the 8(a)-focused Business Development Management Information System, or BDMIS, in 2008. Three years after that system launched, SBA began work on the follow-up OneTrack program, which would have covered 8(a) and HUBZone businesses.

“However, in 2014, after spending approximately $3.5 million, SBA abandoned this development effort,” the IG wrote.

Certify became the next iteration of the modernization effort, with an internal governance board in 2015 approving spending $45 million over 11 years to develop the app.

To avoid past failures, as the project kicked off, SBA tapped the U.S. Digital Service, a central team of private-sector tech experts from companies like Google and Amazon doing tours in government. USDS teams—housed within the Office of Management and Budget—are dispatched to work with other agencies on specific projects, like Certify, and bring private-sector best practices for software development.

However, confusion over leadership and culture clashes led to a runaway project with little oversight.

As USDS settled into the work at SBA, the team reported directly to the agency’s chief operating officer rather than the chief information officer, despite it being an IT-centric project.

When Maria Roat—who currently serves as the deputy federal CIO—took over as SBA CIO in 2017, she moved to reorganize the project, including putting the USDS team under the purview of her office. However, by that time the USDS team had become so integral to the project that “confusion existed between USDS’ and SBA’s role on the project,” the IG said.

As SBA officials attempted to exert more control over the project, “USDS made it clear they reported to OMB,” a former SBA IT employee that worked with USDS on the Certify project told Nextgov. “And when SBA asked for coordinated direction, USDS felt it was only pertinent when it suited their interests.”

The former employee called the USDS “vision and mission … super critical,” but said members were often “dismissive” and “demeaning.”

“For a group that preaches inclusion, a lot of us felt like we were not on the journey with them,” they said. “The team did not really approach, engage or try to really integrate their best practices with SBA’s efforts.”

A spokesperson for USDS declined to comment Monday.

That confusion came to a head in 2019, when SBA leadership opted to pause the project and end the engagement with USDS.

The result, as of September 2019, was a $30 million platform with “unaddressed security vulnerabilities and was difficult to understand and improve,” according to the IG’s restatement of the conclusions of the Business Technology Investment Committee. The committee also found “latent defects and data migration errors” from the development process and ultimately deemed the “platform to be unsustainable on a long-term basis.”

In August 2019, the BTIC recommended developing a new platform using Microsoft Dynamics 365 that would incorporate 8(a), HUBZone, woman-owned small businesses and the All Small Mentor Protégé Program in a single place. The agency awarded a $3.5 million contract the next month to develop that app.

In its report, the IG warned that this contract could fall prey to the same problems that doomed the Certify project.

“Until SBA addresses its oversight weaknesses over IT projects, there is a continued risk of repeating past project shortcomings,” the report states.

While USDS took the reins of the project, the IG put the onus on SBA for adequate oversight and adherence to established IT process controls.

“In each area, we saw that the lack of planning was followed by a subsequent lack of oversight reviews and reporting,” the report states. “This, in turn, left Certify’s managers ill-equipped to accomplish Certify’s objectives and goals.”

The IG also noted project managers used an agile development framework—considered best practice in and out of government—but did not take into account the federal policies that still come into play.

“These management controls include development of front-end project baselines established through design and requirements planning, continuous monitoring against predetermined cost-schedule milestones, and testing against comprehensive user-acceptance criteria,” the report states.

Overall, the IG made nine recommendations. SBA officials agreed with some of the recommendations and disagreed with others. Similarly, the IG took issue with some of the agency’s proposed fixes, ultimately leaving six of the recommendations marked as unresolved as of the publishing of the report.