With Biden's equity agenda in play, experts talk about making procurement more inclusive

NOTE: This article first appeared on FCW.com.

Private and public sector leaders joined forces at the Code for America summit to share insights and real-world examples on the role government procurement plays in addressing gender discrimination and the historical oppression of communities of color.

The "Procurement Pathway to Equity" panel was presented on Wednesday amid a national conversation about the myriad disparities in public spending, and just two days after the Treasury Department revealed state and local governments will have significant control over how they spend $350 billion in relief funds included in the American Rescue Plan Act.

Additionally, the Biden administration recently put out a call for comment on the implementation of its equity agenda, in part to seek guidance on how to make participation in federal procurement more inclusive.

Michael Owh, chief deputy director for the Los Angeles County Internal Services Department and a panelist at the summit, discussed his own experiences leveraging organizational assets to build sustainable partnerships with underrepresented groups when he was New York City's chief procurement officer in New York City.

His first year in the position at the New York City mayor's office, Owh said just eight percent of addressable spend was going to minority and women-owned businesses. There were outreach programs and community-driven initiatives across departments, but a lack of emphasis on the buying side about what can be done to further equitable procurement, he said. His team implemented quarterly principal meetings between his office, department heads and deputy mayors to discuss diversity in public spending – a simple solution that caused the percentage of addressable spend going to minority and women-owned businesses to more than double in two years, according to Owh.

"We put a screen up and had everyone's spend in descending order. It gets very competitive," he said. "The department heads are not necessarily exposed to procurement all the time … so now they're looking around going, 'Who do I need to talk to make sure I don't end up on the bottom of that list anymore?'"

Kosha Bwenge, senior community building manager at Open Contracting Partnership, moderated the panel, which featured Owh, as well as David Simeon, portfolio director for national security at Fearless, Lauren Lockwood, founder and principal at Bloom Works and ShaKeia Kegler, founder of GovLia.

From reviewing and reforming contract policies, to reexamining the ways in which applications and contracts must be written in the first place, the panel explored how systemic barriers preventing diverse vendors from engaging with governments can be dismantled to provide more equitable opportunities.

Kegler, whose supplier diversity management firm provides training in diverse vendor outreach and community engagement, said she has seen two major gaps preventing equity in public spending: a notable lack of engagement with diverse communities, as well as a critical need to simplify procurement policies.

"It's not just about how much you spend, it's about where you spend," she said. "It's about where that money is going and how it's impacting the community overall, in economic development and economic growth."

With the injection of relief funds across state and local governments, and leeway in spending that comes with it, some procurement officials across the country are hopeful investments can go towards underrepresented businesses, paving the way for a multiplier effect that can create lasting change.

Recent reports show there is much work to be done, however: for example, while the GSA awarded 49% of its total eligible spend to small businesses in 2020, just 10% of that went to women-owned small businesses.

About the Author

Chris Riotta is a staff writer at FCW covering government procurement and technology policy. Chris joined FCW after covering U.S. politics for three years at The Independent. He earned his master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he served as 2021 class president.

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