Equal Business Opportunity "Re-Form" Project
Local government contracting and procurement is an important contributor to local economies. It is estimated that 30 percent of spending across all levels of government happens via procurement and studies show that approximately one-half US cities’ total expenditures is through contracts. Historically, people of color and women have been underrepresented in contract awards, creating a disparity between the quantity of MWBEs (minority and women-owned business enterprises) in the marketplace and the share of awards these firms receive.
The City of Durham maintains MWBE contracting goals, but has struggled to meet these goals for construction contracts. In the spring of 2022, the I-Team collaborated with the City’s Equity and Inclusion Department to address this issue. The team worked with the Underutilized Business Compliance (UBC) division of the Finance Department and an Equitable Contracting Workgroup to find solutions in line with the City’s Equal Business Opportunity (EBO) ordinance.
The team organized two strategy sessions with representatives from the Finance, Equity & Inclusion, Purchasing, General Services, Public Works, and Transportation departments. This group identified the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities associated with the City’s current contracting process, developed a process map, and identified barriers (both internal and those that vendors face) to each step in the process.
One of the challenges identified through these sessions was that the forms that must be submitted for bids are long and do not leverage technology. The I-Team sought to remedy this by developing user-centered fillable forms.
The goals of this re-form project were to:
- Reduce the friction associated with completing the EBOP forms for vendors
- Reduce the time required to complete the EBOP forms
- Reduce the number and frequency of errors on EBOP forms
- Reduce the end-to-end processing time for UBC staff who review EBOP forms
- Increase vendor confidence in completing EBOP forms
- Nudge vendors away from using the good faith effort process where possible by adding friction to this option
The I-Team partnered with UBC staff to host an ideation session, where the group identified pain points in terms of content, format, and usability within the forms. The team hoped to leverage technology to make the forms more user-friendly by reducing the unnecessary components and overall length of the documents. Not only would these changes make the process less confusing for bidders, but also lessen the burden of the UBC team who receives the forms.
The team conducted a literature review to assess best practices concerning user experience and user interface. The team then interviewed project managers from the Public Works, General Services, and Water Management departments – three of the departments most heavily involved in construction contracting. These representatives felt that the current forms were too long and included unclear instructions and recommended automatic calculation features to help streamline the process. Finally, the team reviewed online-accessible bid forms from other area municipalities and noted features to potentially be adapted.
RESULTS AND RECCOMENDATIONS
The I-Team collected the culmination of their research and feedback to develop an initial iteration of fillable forms that included automatic calculations and e-signature capture. The team then created a set of instructions for users as well as a user testing guide and provided the updated forms to UBC for review and testing. Six vendors along with project managers from the General Services and Public Works departments user-tested these forms and provided further suggestions. The comments from this testing were used to further tweak and finalize the forms.
The final versions of the forms involved three major updates:
- Leveraging technology - digitally fillable and auto-calculation
While the current forms are available online, vendors are required to print and complete them by hand. This format presents potential complexities with misunderstandings and readability that places a heavier burden on the UBC team and the time of all parties involved. Using Adobe Acrobat, the team was able to recreate the forms so that all information could be typed and make auto-calculations. These changes will not only provide more clarity but also eliminate the potential for calculation errors.
- Behavioral nudge - adding friction to the Good Faith Effort
Bidders are required to make a “Good Faith Effort” if their bid does not meet the MWBE goals for a project. Beyond not meeting the aim of the EBOP program, bids that go through the Good Faith Effort process require a greater time investment from the UBC team, who must follow up to ensure the efforts reported were truly completed. The updated forms add “friction” to the GFE process, by asking bidders to provide explanations for any efforts they did not make to reach MWBE vendors and to acknowledge that their bid does not meet the City’s equity goals.
- Enhanced usability - instructions and FAQs
The team additionally expanded the instructions and made alterations for readability in the new forms. An opening instructional page and detailed Frequently Asked Questions with corresponding answers were added to enhance usability.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the updates, the I-Team conducted a lab test to estimate the impact of the changes. Testers were randomized and prompted to complete and to interpret either the current or updated version of the forms. The respondents were timed, assessed for accuracy, and asked about the understandability of the forms and their confidence completing them.
Compared to the previous version of the forms, there was a 35% decrease in the time required to read and interpret the updated forms. Participants who interpreted an updated form also did so with 18% higher accuracy than those who filled out a current form. These results point to a potentially dramatic reduction in the administrative burden handled by the UBC team. The I-Team estimates that a 3-person team spending ~25% of their work hours interpreting completed forms could save 492 hours a year, enabling them to focus on other compliance-related duties and projects.
We did not find a statistically significant difference in the time required to complete a form, though there was a small boost in user’s ratings of how understandable the forms were. This likely means that greater investment should be made in working directly with vendors for future form updates.
Why it MAtters
This project will help the City of Durham make progress towards its contracting goals to support minority and women-owned businesses. This effort further centers the City’s attention to addressing disparities. By making the contracting forms more user-friendly and coherent, the process becomes more accessible to vendors and may help lighten the burden on the UBC team, making their process more efficient and productive.