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How Pittsburgh is Mobilizing to Help Businesses Owned by Women and People of Color in a Time of Great Uncertainty

On a typical fall afternoon, the streets of downtown Pittsburgh are filled with crowds of people coming from their favorite lunch spots, cars and buses headed in every direction, and bicyclists enjoying the weather. This year is different though. With the constantly changing landscape we are currently living in due to the pandemic, business owners and companies are met with even more day to day uncertainties.

When Pittsburgh was selected for the City Accelerator cohort on Inclusive Procurement, our goal was to find ways to help disadvantaged businesses—particularly those owned by people of color and women—to do more business with the City of Pittsburgh. To be a disadvantaged business is to be owned by a member of an economically and socially disadvantaged group. Put another way, it’s a business owner who is trying to build, grow, and sustain a business while operating against the additional, federally recognized, statistical challenges of being a person of color or a woman.

Equity is a priority for the City of Pittsburgh, and inclusive procurement is an opportunity for our city to recognize and understand the needs of our businesses owned by women and people of color and identify what tools they need to be successful. When our disadvantaged businesses succeed and are awarded city contracts, our money is invested into our communities and our entire local economy is stronger.

Through our close partnership with the City of Pittsburgh Office of Equity, Office of Business Diversity, and the Equal Opportunity Review Commission—all of whom work directly with the disadvantaged businesses—we were able to garner feedback from female business owners and business owners of color about their experiences and pain points navigating our procurement process. By using feedback about local experiences and national recommendations, we looked at our internal processes and identified two areas where we could immediately help our local businesses: publicly displaying our forecast of future solicitations and shortening the time between when a contract is awarded and executed. Time and preparation are of the essence for our small businesses, so we implemented these tools to help them compete more effectively for City contracts.

Government solicitations can often be confusing and complex. If you are a vendor who is looking at these for the first time, it can often be overwhelming, especially without ample time to plan or prepare a proposal. We saw the great work that the cities of Chicago and Charlotte did by providing their local businesses with a City “Buying Plan” through the City Accelerator. These buying plans include upcoming solicitations, when they estimate the solicitation will be released, the estimated dollar value of the contract, and other pertinent information. These examples were our template for the City of Pittsburgh’s first buying plan.

Time and preparation are of the essence for our small businesses, so we implemented these tools to help them compete more effectively for City contracts.

Our Office of Management and Budget worked with the 19 City departments to develop a 12-month outlook of upcoming contracting needs. These were then merged with our list of recurring procurement contracts to develop the City’s 2020 forecast.

After that was completed, we saw there was an opportunity to make the forecast even more useful to local businesses by having other government agencies’ information appear on the forecast. Due to the City’s collaborative nature with its authorities, we enlisted their help to turn the forecast into a collective Buying Plan that identifies contract opportunities for the next calendar year and is updated quarterly. This means that instead of businesses searching through 6 different websites to find out about upcoming opportunities, they can click and view upcoming contracts and bidding information in one spot.

Along with all of the important solicitation specific information (name, value, time frame), we also decided that it was necessary to include the URL’s to the participating government entities and contact information in the Buying Plan document. We hope to expand this eventually to include additional helpful bidding information.

When looking at our other internal processes, we identified another area where we could immediately help our local businesses: shortening the time between when a contract is awarded and executed. When this time is prolonged or a maximum timeframe is not identified, it can put an unnecessary burden on businesses. Small businesses count on the income from the contract, and they may not be certain when they will need equipment, supplies, labor, inventory, or anything else to complete the scope of work.

We noticed that there were three major opportunities that were contributing to the inconsistent or delayed speed of our process:

  • An awarded vendor is required to print off two copies of everything, physically bring them to our office, and sign contracts. If any of the required forms are incorrect or missing information, they would need to start the process all over again.
  • Multiple individuals in separate departments need to review and sign the documents, leaving lots of room for delays along the way.
  • A notary is required for an affidavit.

When our disadvantaged businesses succeed and are awarded city contracts, our money is invested into our communities and our entire local economy is stronger.

When we recognized the process was more onerous than necessary, we centered the experience of the vendor and we all worked together to identify some administrative solutions. We worked with our Law Department to change an affidavit to a certificate. We collected information online during the solicitation process. We embraced DocuSign/electronic signature process to eliminate delays.

We fortunately piloted the electronic signature process before COVID, so when we closed City Hall, we were prepared to keep executing contracts to avoid administrative business interruption. We are exploring other virtual means of supporting our business community. We launched “Contract Connections: Bids for PGH,” an remote training series to help local, diverse small businesses learn how to participate in the City and other agencies’ procurement processes.

While the pandemic may have changed the busy nature of our Downtown business district, we are grateful to the Living Cities and Citi Foundation’s City Accelerator for helping us change the way we do business to make it more accessible and inclusive. The past few months have been full of uncertainty, and going forward, we remain committed to examining our procurement processes to respond to the needs of the business community.

The City of Pittsburgh can lessen the burdens it places on business owners through the procurement process to diversify our vendors and provide a more equitable opportunity for disadvantaged businesses. During the pandemic and afterward, we will strive to make procurement more inclusive for all of our businesses and ensure that Pittsburgh is a city that is livable and workable for all.

Photo from Flickr user Katina Rogers

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