Chicago targets minority-owned businesses with Web site

Merging the aims of public policy with the mechanisms of information technology,

Chicago's Department of Purchases, Contracts and Supplies has embraced the

Internet for the city's Minority- and Woman-owned Business Procurement Program.

Launched in 1990, the nationally renowned program enables the department

to award at least 25 percent of the dollar value of all city contracts to

minority-owned businesses, and 5 percent to woman-owned businesses. More

than 2,000 companies are certified to participate in the program.

Since it went live a little more than a year ago, the department's

World Wide Web site has evolved from a relatively simple billboard to a

robust information site that is carefully keyed to encouraging the city's

purchasing goals.

With sections devoted to explaining how the purchasing process works,

how to conform to bid/proposal procedures and how to become certified as

a minority- or woman-owned business, the site is a public information tool

and an educational forum for companies seeking contracting opportunities

with the city.

"We're using the Web site to ensure that minority-owned businesses and

woman-owned businesses aren't left out of the information flow," said David

Malone, the city's chief procurement officer. "It provides an easy way for

them to understand how bids are being awarded, and to find out the results

of the bid process."

The site also acts as a magnet for Chicago's Target Market Procurement

Program, which designates a number of city contracts each year that can

be bid on only by minority- or woman-owned businesses. The goal is for

10 percent of all contract dollars to be awarded through the Target Market

program annually.

"We see the Web site as a sort of marketing tool for the Target Market

program, as a way to direct minority- and woman-owned businesses toward

opportunities with the city of Chicago," Malone said.

Although the idea of using the Web to promote the city's procurement

policies seems straightforward, its practice has involved the Department

of Purchases in a full range of digital divide issues — from questions about

access to hopes for increased interactivity and e-commerce.

Reservations about the ability of smaller businesses to use the Web as a

tool for information gathering fail to take into account the Web site's

role as an additional, rather than primary, source of information, Malone

said.

A typical concern is the city's policy of publicly advertising contracts

with a dollar value greater than $10,000.

"We advertise those opportunities in the newspaper and will continue

to do so. But when we tell business owners that we also plan to put that

information on the Web, some of them wonder if they'll be left out if they

don't have Internet access," Malone said.

"They need to be reassured that we will continue to advertise in the

newspaper and participate in trade shows and do all the other things we

normally do to share information with the minority- and woman-owned business

population," Malone said.

On the other end of the Internet access spectrum, there are a number

of vendors that have expressed interest in doing business electronically.

Most, though, are happy for now to have the information the site provides

without the complexity of installing and maintaining an e-commerce infrastructure.

In the meantime, the site promotes the city's goal of creating a more

inclusive procurement process by helping business owners. It guides them

through filling out the certification application and explains the bid award

process so that business owners apply correctly.

"Right now, the primary interest of most companies is just in learning

how to do business with the city," Malone said. "The tangible benefit of

the site is that it guides people through that process. It makes them aware

of opportunities and explains the programs we've got in place to facilitate

their involvement. And as we move down the road toward more e-commerce,

their interaction with the site will ensure that they will know what we're

doing and how it will effect them well in advance." l

—Walsh is a freelance writer based in Peekskill, N.Y.

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