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City Lights: Jamie Rhee, Chicago

Jamie L. Rhee, Chief Procurement Officer, City of Chicago, has worked for the city, in a variety of capacities, for 23 years. She talks to SmartCitiesWorld about how modernising procurement policy and practices is helping local businesses and the city’s economy.

Jamie Rhee, Chief Procurement Officer, City of Chicago
Jamie Rhee, Chief Procurement Officer, City of Chicago

How did your career lead you to the role as Chief Procurement Officer?

Growing up in a small town, I always had an appreciation for culture and diversity, and a passion for the law. I received my undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from Michigan State University, I lived abroad Japan, and travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia before returning to the States to receive a Juris Doctor [the equivalent of a Master’s degree in the UK] from DePaul University.

Before attending law school, I worked as an airport information officer at O’Hare International Airport – my first position with the City of Chicago. There, I used my knowledge of the Japanese, Spanish and French languages to give tours of the airport, direct travellers to customs and immigration, and even help them make their way downtown.

I have spent 23 years in City government, and every job that I’ve had at the City has prepared me for the next move. Working at the Planning Department in Real Estate prepared me for my role as General Counsel of the O’Hare Modernization Program, where I had oversight of all legal matters including procurement. From there, I earned a leadership role in the Mayor’s Office.

What is the main purpose of your role?

Ultimately, all of those years’ experience led me to where I am today as Chief Procurement Officer, where I am working on policy-making, law-making and creating an atmosphere that is transparent and equitable, to make sure that our bidders are representative of the people of Chicago. I am very excited to continue in my role, having been reappointed to a third four-year term in July 2017.

What does your day-to-day role involve?

A normal day is a lot of problem-solving, looking at ways that we can improve our programmes and our policies, and a big part of our day is meeting with customers, whether they be the city departments we serve or outside vendors, and local small businesses.

We like to have vendors meet with us so that we can discuss the wide array of programmes and incentives we have to get local companies, especially small, minority and women-owned businesses, involved in Chicago.

How have you changed and how is procurement changing? Why is it so important?

Procurement is the foundation for transformative government and the Department of Procurement Services (DPS) is the gateway for our city departments to acquire the goods and services that they need to fulfil their missions and keep city operations at peak performance levels.

The DPS assists them in articulating those needs for the marketplace and ensuring that there is fair and adequate competition in acquiring these goods and services.

Now, more than ever, transparency and efficiency in procurement are key to maintaining a smart city that is going to thrive well into the future.

How is procurement part of Chicago’s smart city programme?

Behind the scenes there was a highly paper-intensive process that we have worked to modernise. In order to change the focus of the procurement from moving paper to cost savings, negotiation and supplier management, the city has implemented an eProcurement system, which is streamlining procurement from top to bottom. It allows us to remotely collaborate with our city departments to create digital solicitations and contracts, and greatly reduce our procurement cycle times.

Most importantly, it will allow vendors to bid, and the city to evaluate and award, all completely online.

To facilitate increased transparency and make it easier to do business with us, we post the equivalent of thousands of pages of information on our website every week. We actively promote our contracting opportunities through numerous technology methods to reach the widest possible audience.

We livestream bid openings on YouTube to provide a real-time experience and to save vendors a trip downtown or allow them to participate when in the past they might not have been able to.

What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?

In my time with the City of Chicago, I have had the honour of serving under two mayors, both of whom have believed that there should be opportunities for all our residents throughout our diverse communities. I am proud to work towards driving economic opportunity and building stronger communities.

The work we do at DPS is fuelled by the idea that there are opportunities for everyone, that the rules are just, and clear, and that we are here to level the playing field.

I am constantly trying to find new ways that we as a city can be more inclusive of all of our residents. The programmes and initiatives we have spearheaded here are a result of relentlessly trying to break down barriers that have limited opportunities for our under-served communities.

Do you have an ultimate goal?

I have always been inspired by a quote from one of my heroines, the late, great Ann Richards, Governor of Texas, who said: “Life doesn’t have to be fair, but Government does.”

I truly believe in this statement and that Chicago will reach its full potential when all of its diverse population is represented at the business table – when every hardworking citizen with the drive to succeed has a path to become an entrepreneur.

If you weren’t in this role, what would you be doing?

Throughout my 23 years as a civil servant, I have seen it all. I have a passion for this work because I know how working with government can create a pathway to success for so many.

I hope to be able to continue my work with the city, serving its citizens in any way that I can.


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