Earlier this month, Philadelphia held its Minority Enterprise Development (MED) Week 2019 to highlight minority businesses and connect them to resources that can help their firms grow. At my Philly-based firm, PRWT, we commend the city’s efforts to lift up minority firms and try to level the playing field. But if officials are serious about working with more diverse businesses, there is one thing I think they need to do better: Use discretion.
Applying for city contracts is often cumbersome. As a Philadelphia-based company in business for more than 30 years, we know this process well. After a request for proposal (RFP) is publicly announced and posted on the city’s website, firms will spend countless hours completing it, filing hundreds of pages of documents requested by the city and triple-checking all the legal paperwork. Although we have been established for three decades and understand Philadelphia’s RFP process better than most, there are still times when the lengthy process gets the better of our team and one “i” may go un-dotted, or one “t” uncrossed.
While rare, these instances of minor administrative oversight have cost our company business with the city. If this can happen to us — the largest minority-owned business in Philadelphia — it can certainly happen to smaller firms that don’t have the administrative staff dedicated to breaking through the red tape.
To be clear: I am not asking for the city to “hand out” contracts to firms simply because they check off the right boxes. Rather, I am advocating for more meaningful discretion when reviewing proposals than saying no to capable firms because they, for example, neglected to include one form out of 200-plus pages of documents. If the city wants to meet its self-published and admirable goal of 35 percent participation from enterprises owned by women, people of color, and people with disabilities, then it must stop disqualifying firms over de minimis mistakes.
The city is beginning to realize this. The procurement department recently proposed new regulations that would address some of the issues I am raising, including making distinctions between material and immaterial omissions and allowing a grace period of 10 days to correct any inadvertent or reasonable mistakes made in applications.
However, their efforts have to extend further. The city’s team of contracting experts can join with third-party firms and agencies experienced with the procurement process to develop a best practices guide for contracting with Philadelphia. This would provide a road map, or “Insider’s Guide,” to educate vendors of all sizes on how to submit their bids to meet all of the city’s requirements, and on contracting language that can be confusing or overwhelming. In fact, the city could formalize this process with a grant they received this summer from City Accelerator, a program that advises cities on devising policies that improve conditions for low-income communities.
The city’s focus has been increasing its minority-and-women-owned participation levels and providing adequate enforcement through the Office of Economic Opportunity, ensuring diverse firms receive the appropriate amount of work and payment as stipulated in the contract, which should be a priority. However, it is just as important to provide educational resources and tools that allow all firms to understand what is required to become a city contractor. Education is key if the city really wants to remove barriers prohibiting minority firms of all sizes from working in the city.
According to the City’s reports, it has not yet achieved its goal of 35% minority participation. As firms have learned this month, there are many opportunities for small, diverse businesses to compete in our city, but too few dollars actually going to these companies.
While Philadelphia recently experienced a slight drop in its poverty rate for the first time in a decade, it continues to be the poorest large city in the United States. Providing better resources for minority firms to contract with the city needs should join the list of the city’s poverty-reducing priorities. It will provide low-income families with jobs and keep more city dollars in our neighborhoods.
A little more guidance and leeway upfront could have significant long term effects for those who often have fewer opportunities than most to begin with.