City Contracts, MWBEs, and Small Business
By Sandra Holtzman
Seeking contracts to do business with the city is a difficult proposition for small businesses. We often have to compete with large, multi-national companies for the same work. This is simply an unfair playing field. That’s why, in 2005, the city created the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) Program in the Department of Small Business Services to help MWBEs compete successfully for city contracts. Last year, the city took this one step further by passing legislation to eliminate the $1 million cap on MWBE program-eligible contracts, enabling MWBEs to compete more effectively for higher-value contracts.
This is commendable, and as the proprietor of a certified women-owned business, I certainly appreciate these initiatives. However, the devil’s in the details, and more can and needs to be done to give New York’s small businesses every opportunity to do business with the city.
During his campaign, Mayor de Blasio spoken about the need to reform the city’s contracting processes so that local businesses have a fair shot at being awarded more government contracts. I cannot agree more. It’d go a long way if the city put some serious manpower and teeth behind their outreach efforts to small businesses in their requests for proposals (RFPs). City agencies say they actively go to their outreach lists when projects come up. I’ve been on these lists for over a decade and other than getting the occasional cattle call announcing a new RFP, I have never been contacted.
Furthermore, at informational events, the representatives who man the tables are typically just warm bodies, meaning they know very little about the RFP and the procurement process. As a result, we’re almost always referred to a website to sign up for more information. It almost feels like the agencies already have particular companies in mind when they issue their RFPs and are simply going through the motions of these outreach efforts because they legally have to. This is a waste of everybody’s time. Instead, agencies need to cultivate one-on-one relationships with a range of potential companies. In other words, don’t just put on a show – put teeth into it.
At the same time, small businesses can’t always afford the bandwidth to be one of dozens of companies bidding for a particular contract. So reform cannot just be a matter of trying to get more contracts in the hands of small businesses. What the city can do is be much more proactive about enforcing the use of MWBE subcontractors. I have never worked as a subcontractor, but would like the opportunity to. This would be a significant way for MWBEs that are too small to handle city contracts on their own to still benefit from working with the city.
We need to make every effort to ensure that our tax dollars are spent in a way that directly benefits the local economy. The Mayor must build on previous efforts to bolster MWBEs and, in turn, the broader small business community.