Shared Services Canada, which provides IT support services to the Canadian Federal government, recently closed a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking a range of IT services from Project Management to Business Transformation and IT Architecture.
Closed on Friday May 29th, the RFP carries a unique criterion which favors bidders who can demonstrate expertise providing support to members of “underrepresented groups.” As it is stated in the RFP, this includes Indigenous persons, persons with disabilities (physical and psychological), LGTBQ2+, and those who are non-Caucasian or non-white in color. The awarded contract will value millions in taxpayer dollars and is likely to provide a healthy stream of revenue to several companies for years to come.
Companies with years of experience in public procurement agree that the RFP is distinctive, and, in some ways, abnormal, for favoring bidders on their stated adherence to the government’s social values. Leaving companies to design for themselves what makes their culture unique, public procurement normally orients towards objective criteria upon which a company’s goods and services can be evaluated.
As an example, if government procures computers, then specifications about the devices themselves, as well as the company’s supply chain to provide such devices, typically serve as the backdrop for evaluation proceedings. Therefore, if you have provided several thousand computers of a given type, then it is reasonable to assume that you will be able to compete in a request for proposal for computers. But asking whether a company employs underrepresented groups as a basis for evaluating computers? This moves away from objective evaluation measures and into the realm of social policy, which is much more complex. For the sake of successful procurement, evaluation criteria must be clear and verifiable. Can we envision a situation where the government verifies the members of underrepresented groups in a corporation, to determine whether they can buy computers from them? What would verification of this kind look like in practice?
Within Canada’s main buying mechanism for IT Professional services, TBIPS, the Shared Services RFP is especially strange, given that in one very specific case, the government has a stand alone purchasing mechanism, the Aboriginal Procurement Set Aside, which exist for the sole purpose of stimulating business with Aboriginal business owners. If government seeks to work with Aboriginal groups in specific, as noted by their definition of underrepresented groups, then why did it not use its own instruments to engage with them? Surely it could have if this were the intent.
It may be the case that further investment is needed to support underrepresented groups as defined by Shared Services in the RFP, and that the government may want to modify or create new mechanisms for doing so. Nevertheless, historically, public procurement has stayed away from requiring companies to demonstrate human-resource policies of one kind or another, predominantly because it is not an expressly objective basis for evaluating a good or service (in the way that, say, a hard drive would be).
The designers of the Shared Services RFP must have a moral compulsion to do good in our world, given that they have overstepped prior procurement precedent to support those in our society that, in their estimation, do not get a fair shake at work. In the wake of recent racial tensions in the United States, there is a renewed cultural conviction to uphold and respect our fellow human beings. Having designed criteria which seek to support underrepresented groups, it is clear the RFP was built with sincere moral conviction to help people in need.