UI on board with boosting minority firms

UI on board with boosting minority firms

A new state program designed to give minority businesses easier access to millions of dollars' worth of information technology contracts is being used for the first time by the University of Illinois.

The UI last week issued the state's first "sheltered market" request-for-proposals, or RFP, for temporary information technology systems and services, to spur greater participation from businesses owned by minorities and females.

The RFP, posted on the Illinois Public Higher Education Procurement Bulletin website, is open to firms certified under the state's Business Enterprise for Minorities, Females and Persons with Disabilities Act.

The state has been working for years to address what it sees as disparities in state contracts for IT and telecommunications services, according to a UI news release. Until now, no state agencies, including public universities, had issued a sheltered market RFP.

Under state statute, a sheltered market is a "procurement procedure whereby certain contracts are selected and specifically set aside for businesses owned by minorities, females and persons with disabilities on a competitive bid or negotiated basis."

Firms chosen under the university's new RFP will not automatically receive contracts but will be on a list of approved vendors who can be quickly hired by a UI college or department for a short-term, specific job. They will offer temporary staff and IT services to supplement those provided by full-time staff on the UI's three campuses.

UI officials say it could result in about 30 qualified firms receiving a total of $10 million annually by the fourth year of the program.

In 2014, the university awarded $2.9 million in contracts to seven outside IT vendors, and the amount and number of firms needed has been increasing every year, said Michael Hites, the UI's chief information officer.

"It's generally because IT services become more specific every year as technology evolves," he said.

The Illinois Business Enterprise Program Council — a division of the Department of Central Management Services, charged with enforcing the act — established the sheltered market in 2013 after a disparity study showed that certain sectors of the IT/telecommunications industry were being unfairly excluded from state business. It's the first sheltered market established by the state, according to department spokeswoman Meredith Krantz.

The field isn't necessarily short of minority or female vendors, at least in Chicago, Hites said. The problem is that many of them are smaller firms that are reluctant to get involved with the complicated state purchasing process for an individual job, he said.

"If it takes them a long time to engage with the university, that time is better spent working with less complex clients," he said.

The university launched a pilot program several years ago to line up approved vendors for temporary IT services, to give colleges and departments quick access to web developers or programmers for specific projects. Two of the 10 businesses that signed on were certified by the state as minority or female-owned vendors, and about half of the money spent on outside vendors over the next four years went to those two firms, he said.

With that experience in mind, the growing need for IT services and the university's overall goal of promoting diversity, the UI jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of the sheltered-market idea, Hites said.

The new vendors will give colleges and other units another source of IT experts to help with short-term projects, he said. Those offices can still use existing vendors, or issue a specific RFP or sole-source contract, but this provides flexibility, he said.

It should also save the university time and money, he said. It's faster and cheaper for the university to hire an outside web developer or programmer than a full-time employee.

"You know how long it takes to do things at a university," he said. "So having people that are prequalified and meet the specs for the state of Illinois and perform useful services for colleges is incredible for us."

It will take several months to collect proposals, review them and negotiate contracts with the vendors, so the list probably won't be available until next fall or winter, he said.

The new RFP resulted from lengthy negotiations and cooperation among the university's information technology and procurement offices and the state higher education procurement office, according to Sharla Roberts, director of the UI Office of Procurement Diversity. She said the program should help an important sector of the state's business community "grow and prosper."

"Diversity and inclusion are important principles for us to uphold and we're eager to utilize the tools available to achieve our goals," Michael Bass, senior associate vice president and deputy comptroller, said in the release.

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SuzieD wrote on April 02, 2015 at 1:04 pm