Boston’s Path to Equitable Contracting Supported by the City Accelerator Learning Community

The city is working to create more opportunities for economic security and success for small businesses.
by Sheryce Hearns, Deputy Director of Equity and Inclusion, Boston | July 20, 2020 AT 11:00 AM
David Kidd

The following blog post is part of the City Accelerator initiative, a collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.

In light of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, a network of practitioners dedicated to the prosperity of small businesses matters now more than ever. Read on to learn how Sheryce Hearns, Deputy Director of Equity and Inclusion in Boston, joined the City Accelerator and carried lessons learned back to her city that have helped make its COVID-19 response more inclusive. For immediate guidance on how Boston is supporting small businesses during COVID-19, please refer to the resources on its website.

In September 2018, the City of Boston was invited by Living Cities to attend the final convening of the first City Accelerator cohort on Inclusive Procurement, hosted by the City of Chicago. In addition to Chicago, the other cohort participating cities were Charlotte, Los Angeles, Memphis and Milwaukee. Although I arrived unsure of what exactly to expect, I was excited to meet my counterparts in this work and learn how other cities across the country are evolving their spending and strategies to prioritize the growth of an equitable procurement process.

During the convening, each city presented their final projects. I listened in amazement at the work that had been done by each city over the past 18 months. As I wrote down all the great ideas I heard coming from each city, I felt a guilty twinge. I was thinking to myself, “It can’t be legal for me to be pillaging such great advice and ideas from these cities for free,” but that was exactly the idea. The organized and structured curriculum, planned by Living Cities and Griffin & Strong P.C., the policy law firm that serves as the cohort’s expert, allowed for the learning, networking and knowledge sharing that is essential for the type of work that we all do, which is creating equal and inclusive opportunities within each of our government agencies. It was so refreshing and empowering to be with a group of people I did not know, but that I could relate to everything they were talking about when it came to the similarities and struggles of our work.

I was grateful for the invitation, especially because it came at a much-needed time. I had recently accepted the position as Deputy Director of Equity and Inclusion and the City of Boston had just begun work on a new disparity study after an inconclusive decision from the first study commissioned in 2003. When Mayor Walsh came into office in 2016, he created the Equity and Inclusion Unit under the Office of Economic Development. The mission of the department is to enhance the quality of life for Boston entrepreneurs and residents by creating and implementing policies, programs and services promoting economic mobility, equity and empowerment. The Unit was newly formed with a primary focus on creating new opportunities specifically for small, local, and MWBEs (Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprises). However, without the results of the disparity study, it was challenging to create initiatives or programs with a targeted approach.

Based on what I had learned from the City Accelerator, I returned to Boston and began convening working groups with staff. The working groups, comprised of colleagues from our Small Business Unit and our Equity and Inclusion Unit met bi-weekly over the course of three months to plan out a series of workshops, trainings and networking events to build capacity for contractors and other small businesses. Our approach had to be broad because the City did not yet have legal grounds for race and/or gender conscious programs, therefore we planned to offer capacity building series based on industry. For example, despite the city’s current building boom, there are only a few contracts going to small, local, minority and/or women-owned businesses. We created a workshop series to address the needs that contractors expressed as barriers when trying to work with the City, such as: Bonding, How to Create Joint Ventures, Access to Capital, Understanding Certified Payroll, and How to Work with the Unions.

The workshop series was scheduled for one day a week for six weeks. Workshop topics included: Equity and Inclusion, Small Businesses, Community Economic Development, and Jobs, Talent, and Employers. At the end of the series, each participant who attended and successfully completed the workshop series received a certificate of completion and was invited to a one-on-one matchmaking event where they would be paired with City departments based on the types of services they provide.

"Since attending the workshops provided by the Economic Development Center, I have been introduced to opportunities for my business that I didn't know existed before," said Hilliard Baker, President and Owner, H.B. Plumbing and Heating. "For a small business in Dorchester, the helpful staff, valuable networking time, and knowledge I've gained have led to a winning contract and new work for my business. I look forward to building more relationships and learning more with this new program."

Our staff were very proud of what we had implemented, as was the Mayor, who shared the success of the program in the State of the City Address in January 2019.

"We support small businesses because they lift up our neighborhoods, lift up families, and lift up all of Boston," said Mayor Walsh. "Creating more pathways to economic security and success means a stronger, better city for all. Through programs like the Economic Development Center, we are building Boston's middle class and ensuring we are a city where all can achieve and thrive."

Although successful, there was still much to be done to help small, local, women and people of color owned businesses get a fair shot at city contracts. An opportunity came for us in the Spring of 2019, when Citi Foundation and Living Cities launched the 2nd cohort on Inclusive Procurement. The City of Boston, in partnership with the Boston Planning and Development Agency, was selected with nine other cities to be a part of that second cohort.

Since the launch and success of the Economic Development Center, the City had to continue to look at how to improve its procurement laws, practices, policies and procedures in order to really be able to promote equity within City contracts. One of our biggest challenges is having 71 city departments and a decentralized procurement system. Some of the most frequent and common complaints from MWBE’s is the lack of knowledge about upcoming contract opportunities. 

In November 2019 Mayor Walsh signed an Equitable Procurement Executive Order that is focused on improving the procurement process and creating intentional awareness about upcoming contract opportunities, requiring diverse vendors are included in every solicitation process, and creating new systems for sharing data and tracking and reporting on progress. Additionally, we are exploring a contract procurement forecasting process into our annual budget process. Contract procurement forecasting is a pre-bid tool that I learned from the Culture, Collaboration and Capital - Leveraging Procurement for Economic Equity guide put together by the City Accelerator, based on best practices learned in the first cohort. Chicago, Milwaukee, Memphis and Charlotte were some of the first cities to put together what are now known as “buying plans.” The process of creating a buying plan involves aggregating the anticipated expenditures for the upcoming fiscal year from each city department in order to identify and advertise these anticipated expenditures which we call “equitable procurement opportunities."

The administration of Mayor Walsh stands committed ensuring access to economic opportunity for all and with the help from Citi Foundation, Living Cities, Griffin & Strong P.C the City has been able to make great progress in our steps towards a more equitable procurement process.

Still, there is more work to be done.

In recent months, we have seen the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses owned by people of color and listened to calls for cities to confront racial justice. With the help from Citi Foundation, Living Cities, Griffin & Strong P.C., and Mayor Walsh’s new Executive Order in November 2019 promoting an Equitable Procurement Process, the city has been able to make great progress in our steps towards a more equitable procurement process. As my participation in the 2nd Inclusive Procurement cohort continues, I look forward to gathering more information from the other participating cities and continuing to build on the knowledge, network and resources I now have thanks to the City Accelerator on Inclusive Procurement.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.