A Conversation with Lisa M. Flores, Mayor’s Office of Contract Services

In December, Gregory J Morris sat down with Lisa M. Flores, Chief City Procurement Officer and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services to discuss her role, contracting with the city and PASSPort.

Gregory J Morris, NYCETC: Do you want to share the scope of your position? How do you describe it to people who haven’t had experience working with city government?

Lisa M. Flores, Mayor’s Office of Contract Services: Essentially, we provide an oversight function. We have very specific roles and mandates on interacting with our city agencies based on the New York City Charter. We ensure that agencies are following the procurement laws and rules. We maintain the rules and regulations for contracting and ensure that vendors have the integrity to do business with us. Last year, we did over $41 billion worth of contracts for all of the mayoral agencies, but it goes far beyond just contract actions. 

But alongside overseeing the procurement process, our other core responsibility is to reform government so that it is easier to do business with the City. There is a huge, layered web of rules and regulations that have built up over decades, and finding a way to streamline all of that to make procurement simpler and more efficient is at the core of fulfilling our oversight duties.

Morris: How did you find your way to this role? 

Flores: Even when I went to college or graduate school, I did not have any idea of this world. I went to school for international politics but fell into working for city government over 20 years ago, after working in the nonprofit sector out of graduate school. I started my City career at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, followed by the Department of Small Business Services, then the Mayor’s Office of Contracts, before becoming Deputy Comptroller for Contracts and Procurement for eight years under NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer. I was then appointed to my current position at the start of 2022. I’m blessed and honored to have the opportunity to come back here.  It’s a very different office than when I left, and a very different administration.

Morris: What efforts do you feel like you’ve championed in this role? Where is it that you’ve found conflicts or complexities that you want to dismantle, untangle, or work your way through?

Flores: Under this Mayor, I feel like I’ve been afforded the opportunity to bring my personal journey and story to this role. I have not had the same opportunity as others, or the same access. There are cultural nuances that are very different but have a huge impact on how people access government. One of the things I told my staff on day one was that everyone needs to be comfortable with the fact that I come to this space as a Latina woman with my experiences, and that is the full self that I bring to this position. 

My vision for the office is to create an equitable procurement system. I want us to be intentional about equity in every part of our process… We want to leverage technology to be more efficient, accountable, and innovative. 

And also that means meeting folks where they are and bringing awareness of City contracting opportunities out to our small businesses and M/WBEs, who may be unsure how to navigate our complex processes. Getting those businesses involved in City opportunities allows them to jumpstart their own business, and ultimately small and local businesses are the foundation of our City’s economic recovery. 

So we want to help the City recover from the last economic crisis, while also leaving a procurement system better than when we found it. Ultimately, that will require solving for the root causes of procurement dysfunction and putting in place a policy and technology framework that will last. 

Morris: Our audience is largely made up of nonprofit organizations who are vendors in one capacity or another, and they often have their own sub-contractors. If I asked them to give their thoughts about contracting with the city, they’d likely start from a sense of frustration. What is your reaction to that?

Flores: I understand and accept that there is frustration. It’s important to accept that there is a reason that people are frustrated. My job is to listen. That is part of the process of building trust with the sector. How can we communicate better? What are your primary pain points, and what can we do to alleviate them? At the start of the administration we recognized that the backlog of payments due to the sector was the first immediate hurdle we had to solve for. With the backlog initiative in 2022, we unlocked $4.2 billion over a few weeks, and proceeded to out the $7 billion that was owed to providers. We followed that up last year by leading agencies to push to submit 81% of the contracts to the Comptroller on time, which was a 25% improvement from the previous year. 

And then we also recognized from dialogue with the sector, agencies, City leadership, the Comptroller’s team, and other stakeholders that we needed to make structural changes so that backlog sprints aren’t necessary in the future. We’ve gotten a lot done in terms of creating long-term policy changes that will make the process easier going forward including an allowance clause in human services contracts that will reduce amendment volume for predictable expenses beyond the contract max… We’ve also transitioned the City Council discretionary contracts to a multi-year model – this saves huge chunks of time because providers who regularly receive awards each year don’t have to go through the entire contracting process every single year.  We’ve also recently released guidance on an overhaul to the Returnable Grant Fund process, which provides bridge loans to providers when there are contracting delays… Looking forward, we are also focusing on citywide audit reform. We want to do a risk-based approach to our audits because we know we are overburdening the sector by asking for the same thing over and over again.

At the end of the day, vendors want to do the work we hire them for and get paid on time.  We’re trying to address the frustration associated with a history of the city not having been a good partner before. We have been working on being a better business partner going forward. That work is centered on getting you paid on time and getting contracts to the Comptroller on time so you can get your money on time. 

Morris: Are there expectations that you have of the providers, the nonprofit sector? What are your expectations of them? Is there something they should be bringing to the table to support the work? 

Flores:  We have to do a better job of setting up very clear instructions and expectations for providers. If one agency is asking you for one thing, the other agency is asking you for another that makes it difficult to navigate the system in an efficient way, but also to hold us accountable for time frames. So we’ve gone through many sessions with agencies on looking at how we can streamline and standardize document collection. We value the feedback that we have gotten from the sector, but we also need providers to hold up their end of the bargain in terms of submitting documents in a timely manner. By the end of the timeliness initiative, I was – and other commissioners were – personally emailing and calling executive directors of nonprofits where the delay was on the provider’s end. 

We need support from the sector and all the sectors on our advocacy from a legislative front. We’ve got an agenda on the state level now. I think shared advocacy in support of the procurement reform agenda would have great impact. For example, we would welcome the sector’s support in pushing for one of our legislative priorities, which is changing the public hearing requirement. Public hearings are required on most contracts above $100,000, they are very rarely attended by anyone, and they add little value in terms of public transparency. But they add weeks and months to the procurement process, slowing us down without any tangible benefit. This is the sort of red tape we want to cut, and we welcome all the support we can get.

And then when it comes to technology, we will continue to need partnership and patience. The document vault (to be relaunched this year) and our eventual centralization of all contracting work in PASSPort will take us to a better place, but it takes some time. We want the sector to continue providing feedback throughout this rollout so that we can deliver the highest quality system that New Yorkers deserve. 

Morris: How’s the progress on PASSPort? 

Flores:  We are on target for our releases. This year we will release both the document vault and subcontractor approval process. Both will have a massive and positive impact on the human services sector, which is 50% of our total contracting value over the last few years. We are also completing the final migration of contracting work from our legacy system HHS Accelerator to PASSPort. While the Accelerator system has been beloved by the sector for many years, it is not ideal for a procurement process to be split across two systems. PASSPort will at long last be the single, centralized platform where procurement and invoicing takes place. This will give us many benefits in terms of efficiency, transparency, data analysis, and standardization across the City. However, we are aware that there will be a period of change management that is needed as we accomplish this migration, and my office is always available if you are experiencing challenges or have questions while this migration takes place.

In addition to this migration, we are also rolling out the subcontracting process in PASSPort. Subcontracting has long been a “black box” in terms of managing the process. If you are a provider and you have subcontractors, you are required to get approval from your agency and provide documentation. All that happens offline. It is currently very difficult to monitor cycle times or figure out where something is sitting in the process, so digitizing subcontracting will also be a major step forward. 

Across all of this work in upgrading PASSPort, it’s our plan to focus on the metrics and manage each agency’s performance, to keep a very close eye on system performance and user uptake. And then we will be transparent with our agency stakeholders and the sector about how we are progressing.

Morris: What can you share about the city budget?

Flores: The mayor has been clear that we’re in a difficult fiscal situation. There is a level of trust that we’re going to have to have with our providers. The city is attempting to make decisions that are conscious of what works and to not negatively impact services.

We want to work with you. Continue sharing what are your priorities as a sector, and how we as an administration can support you. This allows the entire administration, including OMB, to maximize each dollar spent and make sure our services are as efficient and high-impact as possible.

Morris: Is there anything that gets in the way of that collaboration from your perspective? 

Flores: Sometimes what gets in the way or that we fail to do collectively is be solution oriented. We want to focus on what is achievable in the short, medium, and long-term and be practical about where there are barriers to the lengthy reform agenda we’ve established in these two years. And then we can prioritize what is the highest impact, most feasible work that we can push collectively. We’ve all gone through massive city and nationwide emergencies at this point in the last few years. If we don’t have a foundation of community and understanding who we serve, we will continue to be apart when there’s a lot of things that we’re aligned on. 

We also need to be grounded in the data. We hear about problems from every corner of the City, both among agencies and the vendor community, which can sometimes be misattributed to systems, policies, or people. The data gives us the lens to identify what the true problems are, how significant their impact is, and what we need to do to address them.

I’m looking for continued feedback on what we can do to provide the information that’s needed in a way that is most useful. We’re building a series of instructional videos and we provide in-person training through the MOCS In Your Neighborhood series. We want people to understand what is needed to access opportunities and then double back and make sure that we’re successful.  I want you to be excited about procurement. I understand it’s frustrating, but there are rules that have not changed since the ‘80s. Changes from a legislative standpoint will allow us to be nimble and flexible, and we are always continuing to review internal policies and identify opportunities to streamline. 

Suggested Readings

Commentary: Seizing the opportunity to improve contracting

Will NYC’s Nonprofit Procurement Process Ever Be Functional?

Annual Summary Contracts Report for the City of New York

A Better Contract for New York: A Joint Task Force to Get Nonprofits Paid On Time

City of New York Health and Human Services: Cost Policies and Procedures Manual

Editor’s note: This was originally included in NYCETC’s Workforce Weekly newsletter on January 31, 2024. Subscribe here.