Breaking down barriers
Diversity in contracting matters. Scholarly studies have found that regions with greater racial inclusion achieve better economic growth. Diversity presents an economic opportunity.
I would conclude that it makes sense. Including all businesses in the competition for public contracts — firms of color, woman-owned businesses, service-disabled businesses and other disadvantaged enterprises — means gaining fresh perspectives and qualified people to work on public projects with improved results. There are numerous steps that can be taken in order to clear the path to success.
Public agencies can make contracting opportunities more accessible to smaller, historically underserved business communities. How is that done? The first step to diversifying your contracts as a public entity is recognizing that there is room for improvement. Business as usual does not tend to lead to diversity in contracting. A closer look at contracting data that can be extracted and analyzed will reveal where contracting dollars are going. The data may show that your entity does not fully engage with certain business groups.
The next step is identifying opportunities and exploring the availability of historically underserved firms. Research the State of Oregon's COBID (Certification of Business Inclusion and Diversity) database to see if there are certified firms qualified for upcoming projects.
This exercise may reveal that some professional or trade groups are available in great numbers but are underrepresented in the current contract distribution.
Strategic outreach to and collaboration with diverse business chambers, business associations and business owners can be of substantial help in identifying barriers. Most have heard generalizations that the public procurement process is too daunting, the paper work too cumbersome or the process a mysterious labyrinth.
However, open discussions with business groups can reveal concrete solutions that help break down the barriers for small businesses. While small businesses are highly qualified to compete in the public contracting market, many small business owners don't have the resources to navigate the public procurement process or even find relevant contracting opportunities.
Opening the doors to small business owners and inviting them in for discussions or training sessions to explain how the public procurement process works can better prepare them to win contracts.
New policies can provide the foundation for procurement staff to implement new procurement activities. A strong equity contracting program gives public agency staff the tools to make changes. However, there are activities that don't necessarily require a new policy or an official program. Often, for a business owner to be able to just sit down with a procurement professional and learn how to navigate the procurement process can break down barriers. Explaining systems and timelines, and providing a standardized proposal or bid template tremendously helps a business to succeed.
Giving small business owners access to agency staff is essential. It is very helpful to introduce small business owners to the contracting departments. Making that face-to- face contact allows people to connect.
It makes public agency staff aware of who is available for work so they can be included on plan holders lists. Actively participating in outreach events is another effective way to get to know each other. There are many new, certified businesses every day that can work on public projects. Connecting business to government employees opens up the window of opportunities.
It is also important to focus on internal improvement. As a procurement professional, providing training to the contracting department on the benefits of diversifying your contracts explains how it is a win for all when focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. An equity strategy discussion prior to soliciting a request for proposals or invitation to bid provides the opportunity to explore how public contracts can be made accessible to those firms who have not had that privilege in the past.
In summary, reaching out to small, disadvantaged firms, inviting them in for training or discussion, connecting with them, simplifying templates and empowering staff within the agency can all make a big difference in breaking down the barriers to access public contracts.