E-Procurement, The Chicago Way

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Depending on whom you ask, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration may not have the best track record for providing transparency to the public, even though his official communications channels — and even the Mayor himself — like talking it up.

Whether one follows the “liberal rag” Chicago Reader’s columnist Ben Joravsky, as I do, or even the mainstream Tribune and Sun-Times (the more conservative of the two “big” papers in town), all have at one time or another bemoaned or at least covered the bumbling of transparency throughout this mayor’s tenure.

The latest stop on the Transparency Train has been right up Spend Matters’ alley: an announcement that the City of Chicago’s Department of Procurement Services (DPS) will adopt a new e-procurement approach to do better business with its myriad vendors and suppliers.

Above all, “the establishment of e-procurement demonstrates our commitment to ongoing efficiency and transparency in procurement,” said Mayor Emanuel, according to the press release.

Well, kudos to Mayor Emanuel and his DPS on the move to involve procurement technology to improve the city’s vendor relationships, RFX processes, payments and invoicing, certainly.

But wait, how could it possibly have taken the City this long to get this going? Has the DPS been only pushing paper up until now?

Indeed, upon looking into it a bit more closely, the department does use an iSupplier Portal, which links to lists of both e-pro bids and paper bids. But we asked DPS for a bit of clarification.

“We do already have an e-procurement solution in place,” Cathy Kwiatkowski, DPS’ Director for Public Affairs, told me via email. “We will not be advertising for the e-procurement solution, but advertising an RFP for Professional Services on the existing e-procurement platform.”

Ahhh, got it.

“The upcoming RFP for Professional Services advertisement [in August] is a significant milestone in this transition from traditional submissions to e-procurement due to the complexity of the submittals that will be received,” Kwiatkowski said, “and was the right time for the City’s announcement about e-procurement.”

Good thing, too, because the paper bids still far outweigh the e-procurement bid opportunities. Upon last check, according DPS’ iSupplier Portal, only two e-pro bids were active: “various types of suppression foam” for the Fire Department, and “interior, exterior paint and supplies” for Streets and Sanitation.

Meanwhile, to find the active paper bids, you’d have to scroll for a minute.

Ultimately, as much else with the City of Chicago (and not least its transparency efforts), this effort follows a multiphase approach.

“Solicitations are being moved from the traditional paper process to e-procurement in a phased approach based on contract type,” said Kwiatkowski. “We have rolled out and awarded pilot solicitations, ensuring that all processes were operating smoothly and to prepare us for the home stretch” of this initiative.

Mainly, a big challenge is getting all the city’s departments “talking to one another” in the right way.

“We have worked with all of our user departments to ensure that they were part of this major operational upgrade from the onset of the project,” she added. “Communication and collaboration have been a key component to ensure that all departments’ needs are identified and met and to solidify their commitment to its success.”

(I feel many procurement organizations would nod in agreement, with phrases such as ‘stakeholder buy-in’ flitting across their minds.)

So, onwards and upwards, Chicago! We’ll be sure to keep an eye on this process.

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