This morning, at this hour, Small Business Administration chief Steven Preston goes before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. It's the first step on a short journey to confirmation as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the American Small Business League sent the soon-to-be ex-administrator off with scorn. "Small business advocates expect the committee," scowled the ASBL in a press release on Monday, "to challenge Administrator Preston on his poor track record on small business."
Really? Which small business advocates? Presumably the ASBL is referring to itself. The organization focuses exclusively on securing federal contracts for small business; a worthy project, since few except maybe the SBA itself would say the agency has done enough to stem the flow of purported small business contracts going in fact to big firms. (Just yesterday a judge ordered the SBA to provide the ASBL with the names of every firm to get a contract designated as "small business" for 2005 and 2006, something the agency had fought.) But sometimes the organization's persistence borders on zealotry, and the press releases sound a shrill note. In most other quarters, Preston's departure has been greeted with something closer to mourning.
"I've worked with Steven Preston as the SBA Administrator for almost two years now and I'll be sorry to see him go," said John Kerry, chair of the Senate Small Business Committee, in a statement released when Preston's appointment was announced. "Mr. Preston inherited an agency in disarray, and he's worked hard to right its course and to improve relationships with Congress. We may have some differences on policy, but he's always been professional, responsive, and dedicated to the mission." Generous words, these. Preston has insisted that despite the accusations and complaints lobbed from Capitol Hill, he had a good relationship with Sen. Kerry, and all the rest was politics.
Lenders in the 7(a) program are sorry to see him go, too. "He's been the best thing to happen to the SBA in years," says Bob Seiwert, Senior Vice President at the American Bankers Association, citing Preston's initiative to simplify the Standard Operating Procedures for the agency's loan programs. "He has recognized a problem: there's been a drop-off in community banks offering the SBA product. And one of the reasons is because it's just too complicated to administer."
But if Preston had his work cut out for him healing a rift with Congress and bringing banks back into the fold, the most damaged relationship of all was the one in the family, between SBA officials in Washington and the employees in the field. For a couple years, the SBA rounded out the bottom of the federal bureaucracy in the matter of staff morale. When I spoke to him last December, Preston pointed to a new survey (pdf) that showed things were improving. "I think this agency has got a smile on its face, and confidence that has been lacking for a long time," he said.
With that in mind, I called up some of the employees in the Richmond, Virginia, district office, which I profiled in an article that ran in the May 2007 issue of Inc. magazine. Most declined to talk, which might in itself say something about staff morale. But those who spoke mostly had praise for their future-former chief. "He did a really good job at trying to open up communication, which was a real stumbling block here," one staffer, who asked not to be identified, told me. Now, "we're at a loss. We're worried about all the actions that he has taken to put us in the right direction -- what will happen to them? We don't know. We're hoping that whoever follows in his footsteps will carry those initiatives forward."
"Everyone I talked to really hates to see him go," added Tammy Proffitt, who heads up the local 8(a) program, which offers counseling and government contracts to disadvantaged businesses. "He listened a great deal, and he really took seriously a great deal of what he heard. And he took it back and tried to make changes where he could. If he made a promise, he kept it.
"He's certainly been one of the best administrators I've experienced in my tenure at SBA."
Said one employee, "He was not interested in the political aspects of the job -- as in, what political capital this might get me. He was focused on the day-to-day operations."
In the end, of course, he did accrue political capital, and he's moving up the Executive Branch. At the helm of HUD, Preston will command an agency with a $40 billion budget -- roughly a hundred times the size of the SBA's -- and take a seat in President Bush's cabinet. Whatever he learned at the SBA will come in handy here: HUD's previous secretary, Alphonso Jackson, left amid a criminal investigation for corruption.
But at the SBA, notwithstanding the ASBL's jeers, Steven will be missed.