Interagency Network of Enterprise Assistance Providers: An Unusual Partnership of Government Agencies and Private Businesses Communicate and Collaborate to Enhance Services to Small Business

By Thomas, Carroll | The Public Manager, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Interagency Network of Enterprise Assistance Providers: An Unusual Partnership of Government Agencies and Private Businesses Communicate and Collaborate to Enhance Services to Small Business


Thomas, Carroll, The Public Manager


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Less than ten years ago, twenty million small businesses across America faced the catastrophic year 2000 crisis! Y2K, as it was called, threatened computers around the world because they were based on a DD/MM/YY formula. This formula made computers believe that the year 2000 was actually the year 1900, rendering them unable to correctly calculate any information dealing with time.

Enter a fairly young public-private program--the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), headquartered at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)--which focuses on assisting small manufacturers around the country. Through collaboration, MEP was able to broker a deal with the US. Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration (SBA) Small Business Development Centers. Working together, they leveraged their reach and resources to small businesses across America and helped them avert the crisis. The successful collaboration helped millions of small businesses survive, but soon thereafter the synergistic collaborative efforts between the organizations ceased.

The looming Y2K catastrophe spurred the federal agencies that serve medium and small businesses to work together, but in today's interconnected world such collaboration needs to be routine and continuous. In January 2006, this need led to the formation of a more formal public-private network, the Interagency Network of Enterprise Assistance Providers (INEAP).

Goals and Membership

INEAP is a coalition of people from federal (and some private and nonprofit) organizations whose primary mission is to assist small businesses. It has three major goals:

1. Establish and maintain positive relationships among the people who run these programs.

2. Use those relationships to learn about the various programs--what they offer, whom they serve, and what if any collaborative relationships they currently have with related programs.

3. Use that knowledge to find opportunities to collaborate and improve services to small businesses.

INEAP members come from forty-five business and technical assistance programs, including the SBA; Export-Import Bank; U.S. Departments of Commerce (DOC), Labor (DOL), and Energy (DOE); and US. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and other nonprofit organizations are also involved.

INEAP's stakeholders are other federal, state, and private providers that offer services to or have a network with small and medium-size businesses. Congress is also a customer and stakeholder.

Functions

Fifteen to forty INEAP members, depending on the agenda, meet monthly. The meetings typically help members learn about other programs' offerings. Each meeting focuses on a theme: support to veteran-owned businesses, international trade and financing, loan programs to businesses, and the like. Between meetings, various INEAP members forge the formal and informal partnerships that actually accomplish the network's goals.

INEAP has no senior sponsor, no formal charter, and no official mandate. It operates with a few ground rules (such as respect members and each other's programs and commit to sharing program information), but compared with some partnerships, it functions in a very informal manner. Members prefer it that way because the low profile keeps bureaucracy to a minimum.

Antonio Doss, the director of SBA's Small Business Development Centers, and CarrollThomas, partnership catalyst for MEP and author of this article, founded this interagency group and facilitate the monthly meetings. We recently established an executive core council of the most active INEAP members, which shares the leadership tasks. Meetings rotate among the members' downtown offices. When resources (people, meeting rooms, and the like) are needed, the leaders ask members to contribute them. …

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