Government confederation works to boost diversity in public sector workforce, remove barriers in public policies
It is important to give government workers the pathways for upward mobility, believes Julie Nelson, co-director of the Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE), a national coalition of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for everyone. GARE’s Membership Network is composed of more than 350 jurisdictions that are leading local and regional governments’ work to advance racial equity.
Nelson also serves as senior vice president of programs at Race Forward, a group that uses systemic analysis of complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity. She has more than 25 years of experience working for local, regional and federal government, including stints with the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department.
Nelson says diversity is important to GARE: “It is a great sign of progress as government workforces become more diverse.” She urges government officials to create and build sustaining relationships within disadvantaged communities in their cities, and then they should work to create pipelines for upward mobility. Nelson suggests that city and county procurement managers should think about the full range of jobs from entry-level to middle management to upper management positions where members of disadvantaged communities could fit. She urges those managers to analyze where the gaps exist—where disadvantaged communities are not represented.
“Often, we find that government has done a great job of opening doorways, so that we can create some diversity, but then the hiring process is not taking place equally at all levels of the organization. So, what we recommend our GARE members do is completing a more detailed analysis to determine why disadvantaged communities aren’t represented fully in the government’s workforce,” Nelson says. On the procurement front, Nelson urges managers to find the gaps that prevent disadvantaged vendors from winning or participating fully in the agency’s contracts.
Nelson notes, however, that diversity within the government workforce doesn’t necessarily mean that contracting and procurement policies and practices in government offices will deliver equal opportunities to disadvantaged businesses.
One procurement practice that GARE has examined is how contracts are bundled, Nelson explains. “When local governments are using great big contracts to distribute funds, then there’s a built-in preference that gets created for larger, more established companies. And those are less likely to be companies that are owned and operated by people of color. So really thinking about how we are doing the procurement of goods and services is important. It is crucial that governments buy in such a way that the process is accessible for businesses of color.”
Nelson says bonding covenants are another procurement area that can be a barrier to disadvantaged vendors. “Sometimes there are practices like bonding requirements, where over the course of time, those requirements have grown and grown and all of a sudden it becomes cost-prohibitive for smaller companies that are more likely to be owned and operated by people of color. When an agency makes adjustments to structural terms and preconditions, it often opens the door for businesses of color.”
Nelson adds that it is important to have adequate performance bonds to ensure the contract will be successfully delivered. “I’m not saying to get rid of them completely. The bonds that are set in place should be commensurate with the type of project. So, in doing that level of analysis, make sure that your agency gets the bonding levels that are truly needed for the project.”
Nelson sees the value of cooperative purchasing agreements for local governments. She says cooperative deals can streamline the contracting process for understaffed procurement offices. This can help save time, so cities don’t have to go through a formal bidding process. “That’s part of the complexity, recognizing sometimes that bidding processes are important, because otherwise, there can be jurisdictions that just give contracts to the same vendors over and over. So opening up processes is good, but doing it in such a way that it is not overly complicated; you don’t want that complexity to become an additional barrier. So, it’s really thinking about reducing barriers everywhere.”
Prospective vendors that are interested in selling to the public sector can also benefit when cooperative contracts are used, Nelson says. “Cooperative deals among jurisdictions are important because they can streamline and increase efficiencies for the companies that are trying to obtain government contracts through procurement offices. To be able to do that in cooperative deals across multiple jurisdictions has been helpful for businesses of color. So, a big thumbs up for that.”
A resource that GARE has issued is its report, “Contracting for Equity: Best Local Government Practices that Advance Racial Equity in Government Contracting and Procurement.” This issue brief provides a practical approach to furthering the field of practice of contracting equity within government. The report notes that “Within governmental jurisdictions that are working to advance racial equity, a common area of interest is the spending of government dollars.”
The issue brief aims to help governments reach this stated goal: “Local and regional government dollars used for contracting, consulting and procurement should benefit the communities we serve, proportionate to the demographics in our communities.” The report outlines four broad strategies that local and regional governments can undertake to promote fairness in the procurement and contracting process. One of the report’s conclusions: “Contracting equity programs help spread economic development to all areas of a jurisdiction and allow that jurisdiction to express its values of inclusion.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County. Contact him at [email protected].