After eight years without one, the state is beginning a study of minority- and women-owned businesses in Missouri and how much they participate in state contracts.
The multi-part Small Business Impact Study being conducted by the University of Missouri-Kansas City will provide insight into the state's history of contracting with minority- and women-owned businesses and the challenges businesses face in attempting to participate.
Missouri has had a flexible goal since 2005 that at least 10 percent of state spending on contracts would go to minority- owned businesses and at least 5 percent would go to women-owned businesses.
It's only reached the minority participation goal four years during the past 30. Of the $1.5 billion Missouri spent on contracts in fiscal year 2021, 8.2 percent went to minority-owned businesses and 3.5 percent went to women-owned businesses, according to the Office of Equal Opportunity.
State lawmakers last year fought to fund the study to begin improving those figures. Courts require the state to have a disparity study every five years to uphold firm participation goals on contracts. And the study was awarded to UMKC in January.
UMKC, in conjunction with the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity and Office of Administration, kicked off its study with a public meeting Wednesday morning to outline the research plan and engage stakeholders on their experiences working with the state.
Melissa Patterson Hazley, a senior researcher helping lead the study with the UMKC Institute for Human Development, said she's excited to start the vigorous research project that has more than four key elements.
Analyzing data from fiscal years 2014-21, the study will involve qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Brent Never, an associate professor of public affairs at UMKC who is also helping lead the study, will determine how many minority and women vendors and contractors are available and how many the state is using.
"It's a supply and demand sort of relationship," Never said. "This study, largely, is trying to understand if that supply and demand relationship is working well."
Part of that analysis will involve determining an ideal level of Minority-Owned Business Enterprise (MBE) and Woman-Owned Business Enterprise (WBE) participation in state purchasing, Never said.
Using state procurement records and data from local and regional collaborators, Never and his team will determine how many minority- and women-owned businesses have successfully participated in the state procurement process and how many haven't.
That data will also be broken down into seven regions so researchers can determine why some areas of the state might contract with minority- and women-owned businesses differently.
Never will also be looking at state policy related to purchasing practices, like how bids are marketed and how state employees work with potential vendors.
Never's team will also conduct a legal analysis of relevant case law related to how MBE and WBE programs have been implemented around the country since 2014, the last time the state conducted a similar study.
Hazley's team is focused on hosting a series of focus groups with industry representatives in areas throughout the state, with the first one set for April 4 in Kansas City.
The two-hour focus groups will identify barriers and opportunities for contracting with state agencies. Hazley said she wants to involve minority- and women-owned businesses that have been successful with the state and those that haven't.
"It could be positive and negative," she said. "We're just going to go wherever the data leads us."
It could lead to more focus groups locations, Hazley said. Interested business owners can register for one of the five focus group locations at bit.ly/3CPtvwH.
There will be focus groups at noon and 2 p.m. April 15, at Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City.
Participants in the public meeting Wednesday were also asked about their experiences with the state. Questions centered around what made a successful procurement process, challenges within the process and how it can be made easier.
Preliminary feedback from participants Wednesday said bid descriptions aren't helpful and they are sometimes confused about what the state has out to bid. Other comments advocated for better communication from state purchasers and a small mentor network to assist business owners with the state procurement process.
Hazley said the study will be complete within the next few months and the results will be published by the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity.
The Office of Equal Opportunity supports the state's efforts to centralize diversity and inclusion throughout its functions. It houses the state's MBE and WBE certification program.
Corey Bolton, director of the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity, said the study will reveal if the state has a solid grasp on minority and women participation in state purchasing, but he thinks the state is "doing a great job" with supportive services for them.
"Anytime that we can get out there and see what availability is versus contracts and things like that, I think it's a good thing," he said.
Bolton said he wants to ensure the availability of businesses is met with contracting opportunities with the state.
He said the study is also an opportunity for the state to show it's a collaborative partner for minority- and women-owned businesses -- before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
A couple dozen stakeholders participated online and in person Wednesday, including Damon Nunn, Lincoln University's director of purchasing.
Nunn said he was interested in the meeting to potentially gain insight that would benefit LU's procurement process with minority- and women-owned businesses.
The university doesn't have an accurate account of MBE and WBE participation in its contracts, Nunn said in early March. He's now working to catalog those businesses in the university's internal purchasing system.
"We always try to research and glean because, after all, we're a university," he said. "We research, we study and see what works for others and see how we can make things better in our areas."