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Keep Politics Out of ProcurementKeep Politics Out of Procurement

Keep Politics Out of Procurement

Government support for disadvantaged groups is morally worthy but has no business trumping best value as the basis for purchasing public goods and services, David McKernan argues.

David  McKernan
5 minute read

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.

Nevertheless, given that over 50 companies have competed in the process at Shared Services, the RFP impacts a group of companies with total market capitalization in the billions. While the RFP was designed in good conscience, it carries far reaching consequences for companies spread out across the world, and for the procurement process itself in Canada. It is a question worth asking: does the insertion of a sociopolitical criterion, such as one that favors “underrepresented groups” a tactic which may undermine our supposedly fair and transparent RFP process? 

Taken in the context of our broader crisis with Covid-19, in which the government is spending unprecedented volumes of money with limited parliamentary oversight, this RFP may serve as an example of the way in which the government is skirting the tradition of prior governments, and overstepping the boundaries that were laid before it. Is the government dispersing money under the banner of COVID-19 to entrench its political position in other areas?  Are we to expect further overstepping of boundaries in the months ahead? Just where exactly is our taxpayer money being spent, and based on what set of beliefs? What has happened to our normal checks and balances in government procurement in the wake of COVID-19?

Despite its many flaws, the competitive process upheld by Public Services Procurement Canada has always sought to determine fair and objective measures of evaluation upon which a company can or cannot do business with the government. Whether or not a company embraces a specific ideology and designs programs that support the ideology is a different matter altogether. 

There is good reason for this: while we may praise the government for overstepping procurement norms for the sake of an ideology we agree with, what happens when a new government is in power and it does the same thing with one that we do not agree with? Procurement is designed to be politically neutral with respect to its operation.   

It has never been the responsibility of our government to decide for Canadian companies which identities are fairly or unfairly employed by them. Do we now think this intrusion into corporate human resources policy is allowable? Questions must be answered before we continue along this path. And again, while we may do this in good conscience, it may end up having the wrong effects. As is well known, companies, strictly speaking, cannot always be counted upon to be good moral actors (and the same goes for government). 

The liberal tradition and the basis upon which Canada has been founded as a liberal democracy has always upheld the respect for one’s privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to pursue a good life by whatever path one chooses, irrespective or race or creed. This does not exclude minority persons, just as it does not empower government to overstep the fair boundaries of procurement set, for good reason, without recourse to identity politics. It is a plain contradiction for our government to uphold our liberal values and at the same time undermine them. One can only hope that the RFP with Shared Services is a small problem, one worthy of further exploration, rather than a symptom of a much larger illness. 

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