The pandemic taught some cities to help small businesses more

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The City of Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday announced the launch of a new small-business portal, the latest such launch among local governments seeking to provide their residents with a level of heightened assistance that became more common during the pandemic.

Wichita’s new portal uses software from Qwally, a company that got an early boost from the Startup in Residence and CivStart business incubator programs. Like similar tools found in a growing number of cities, Wichita’s new portal is designed to make it easier for businesses to do things like apply for licenses or become certified to work for the city. For the city, too, the platform offers a way to automate administrative work and more easily find small businesses that might qualify to sell their services to the local government. 

Matthew Cody, one of Qwally’s co-founders, told StateScoop that the handful of cities he’s worked with — which include Mobile, Alabama, and Manor, Texas — have said they’re interested in being more proactive in working with their small businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities.

“Now that things are kind of back to normal, cities are embracing their role in small business support, realizing they need to do more and continue to deliver the services that they may have delivered under stress during the pandemic,” Cody said.

Wichita’s new portal makes things easier for business owners because it uses “plain-language content,” as opposed to governmentese, and it streamlines the application process for its Emerging Business Enterprise Certification program, which provides small businesses a shot at selling to the city. 

“It opens up a whole new subset of the business community who had never thought they could be contactors before, which is something we try to do with our platform,” Cody said. “You always have to interact with the city as a small business, whether it’s licensing or zoning. Let’s make that first interaction more impactful.”

Cody said he’s seen some minority business-owners face an additional challenge in getting capital to bond their businesses, and that all businesses can use additional support to navigate cities’ “complex” certification programs. Modern digital services platforms like Qwally equip local governments with the means to aid small businesses, he said.

Small business portals were a growing trend among state and local governments even before the pandemic, but even just among Qwally’s customers, Cody said he’s seen more recently that such software can have outsized benefits, particularly in places where dormant political will was awaiting a technological solution.

He pointed to his company’s work with Mobile, Alabama, starting in 2018, which doubled the number of women- and minority-owned businesses working with the city following an initiative to increase support for those groups. And in Kansas City, Missouri, Cody said, a small-business office of just two staff members managed with his platform to process 4,000 requests within two months during the city’s peak renewal period this year.

In Wichita, officials are hoping to use the platform to achieve similar results. In the city’s announcement, Vice Mayor Brandon Johnson said the Qwally deal “expands on the City’s current efforts to engage emerging and disadvantaged businesses and reduce red tape to make our community and city vendor base more inclusive.”

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Digital Services, Kansas, Qwally, small businesses, Wichita
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