Federal procurement helping to achieve social goals

How we spend money involves choices, not just the choice of what to buy, but whether our purchases serve a greater good. For instance, we can decide to support small vendors by shopping locally and to give our business to eco-friendly firms.

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) purchases goods and services valued at billions annually, representing about 80% of the Government of Canada's procurement spend. It's a substantial expenditure that can be used to advance some of the government's key social objectives.

This is what PSPC aims to do with its new Policy on Social Procurement, which seeks to incorporate social considerations into the procurement process. The goals are to reduce barriers and enhance economic and social opportunities for equity-deserving groups, such as Black and racialized peoples, women, the LGBTQ2+ community and persons with disabilities.

According to Michelle Mascoll, a senior director in PSPC's Procurement Branch, there is an awareness that we need to diversify our supplier base and be “more deliberate about intentionally including people.” This is especially true for those who were historically underrepresented in federal procurement. She adds:

The Policy on Social Procurement is meant to give us the foundation to be more active in leveraging federal procurement to support equity-deserving groups. It's about making decisions that manage risk appropriately while ensuring the suppliers with whom we do business represent Canadian society as a whole.

Image of Michelle Mascoll

With this in mind, PSPC launched a number of pilot initiatives to explore how to achieve our social goals, part of which involves promoting more inclusive procurement practices. “By reducing barriers to participation in the federal supply chain, we can make our procurement processes more equitable,” explains Sandra Charles, former Associate Director of PSPC's Strategic Policy Planning Division.

Ms. Mascoll notes that these measures have strong backing from a public eager to build a modern and just society. "People want to see equity. They want to see change and support. The government's role is to respond to the needs of Canadians, and the Policy is helping to make that happen," she says.

The journey of the Policy on Social Procurement

PSPC's approach to social procurement was informed by collaboration across government and with community representatives. "The stakeholders we worked with are the industry leaders representing businesses owned and led by suppliers who felt excluded from our process," says Ms. Charles. PSPC engaged with these groups through consultations, round tables, surveys and requests for information, "to connect with them, hear their views, and see how to integrate their comments and ideas into our work."

Collaboration is at the heart of the exercise and essential to progress, as Ms. Mascoll affirms:

Diversity and inclusion mean we're stepping away from an echo chamber. We're bringing a broad mix of voices to the table, being mindful and doing it in a meaningful way, actively listening to their voices, understanding what lived experience they bring, and giving them space to speak their truth.

Every aspect of the development of the Policy on Social Procurement has revolved around diversity and inclusion. As Black women leaders, Ms. Mascoll and Ms. Charles feel that their own lived experiences have been helpful in giving these communities a voice in all their diversity and recognizing that they should be part of any conversation that impacts their members.

A collaborative and inclusive mindset continues to guide PSPC's next steps, as we create a framework for concrete programs and initiatives to pursue social procurement strategies. A 2021 pilot with 12 procurement opportunities intended for Black entrepreneurs revealed that it would be wise to maintain ongoing engagement with different business communities and design our programs in partnership with them. "This will help us respond to their actual needs," says Ms. Mascoll, "not what we think they need."

Other lessons learned from the pilot and PSPC research is that there is market capacity and growing interest in doing business with the government among more diverse groups, but "there are some systemic barriers," says Ms. Charles. "Moving ahead, we need to do things differently, by talking about it, explaining, learning from our mistakes and adapting. We need to be intentional and fearless, and to make sure we internalize our discussions and that we learn to change our behaviour for the better."

Benefits for all Canadians

Social procurement takes procurement from an economic transaction between buyer and seller and turns it into a means for social transformation, with positive ripple effects. In Ms. Mascoll's words:

It ensures that businesses owned by equity-deserving groups have opportunities to sell to government, so it's about putting money into communities through government contracts. This leads to more salaries, more education and training opportunities, a demand for trades, and more opportunities to be part of the Canadian society and economy, as equals.

Image of Sandra Charles

Ultimately, our effort to make procurement more equitable will bring value to all Canadians. "It will make federal procurement simpler for everybody, so everyone will win," Ms. Mascoll points out. If more vendors bid on federal contracts, more communities benefit, and federal buyers can choose from a wider range of potential suppliers. Ms. Charles adds that a diverse supplier base will help "tap into more creative and innovative ideas and encourage competition, making Canada stronger and more resilient."

A vision for the future

Putting the Policy on Social Procurement into action is currently a PSPC push, but the plan to extend it across government over time will be welcome. "Other departments are excited about this," Ms. Mascoll says. "They want to start adopting this approach on their own because people understand how important it is." It's certainly critical for the federal government to lead the charge on social procurement. Our spend is huge, and our operations very visible, which could influence broader culture change.

What, specifically, would Ms. Mascoll and Ms. Charles like to see down the line? For Ms. Mascoll, success means that "people will be actively thinking about diversity and inclusion when they work on procurements, that it informs part of their decision-making." She hopes that social procurement will simply become the way we do business. Ms. Charles takes the view that "success means everyone can participate and work with the government without having the feeling that the system is unfair, or unfair to certain groups."

The advocacy for social procurement within government, and its potential results, have a highly personal significance for both women, says Ms. Mascoll: "Speaking for myself, not only as a Black woman leader, but as a mom, it's about ensuring I'm able to use my role to support the next generation of communities."

For more information about PSPC's plan to make procurement processes easier, faster and more accessible for all suppliers and buyers, visit Better Buying.

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