What’s in a name? Diversity and Public Procurement

What’s in a name? Diversity and Public Procurement

Diversity and Public Procurement

In working with a group of SMEs recently, a very interesting question arose around diversity and the use of CVs in tender submissions. The individual in question asked whether submitting CVs that have the names and genders removed was acceptable. It was the first question in quite some time that stopped us in our tracks and challenged us to step back and appreciate the profundity of this as a potential future trend for procurement contests.

On discussing this in further detail with the individual, what quickly became apparent is that the company is very ethical and conscientious and tend to submit anonymised CVs because they do not necessarily know who would be actually be available should they win the work. This question was easy to address as it’s an established issue in tendering and the guidance we tend to give people is:

  • Submit in good faith the best team with the best experience that mostly closely matches the requirements of the tender; and
  • Include a proviso stating that should an individual become unavailable (for whatever reason), you will propose an alternative with equivalent experience. It is important that this isn’t abused however and that substituting people in and out of a bid is done for sound reasons (they leave company, become unavailable for valid reasons etc.).

While this dealt with the immediate tactical issue, it did not deal with the wider diversity-related issues that we felt were raised by the initial question.


Diversity and meritocracy

In an increasingly diverse ethnic workplace and against the backdrop of a global calls for increased recognition and meritocratic progress in the workplace, should the evaluation of individual CVs become anonymised in public tenders? The explicit aim of doing so would be to promote diversity. Having reflected on this, our inclination (from a technical perspective) is that the case for doing so may not be very strong. There is no doubt that it could work, and work well, some of the time. Where it works, it would be difficult to envisage circumstances where this wouldn’t result in greater meritocracy.

This said, our reservations are down to the way tender processes are designed to work. Rules need to be applicable across the totality of an end to end process. If the goal of anonymised CVs (from a diversity perspective) is to remove the potential for cognitive bias on the part of evaluators so that the relative merits of teams is objectively assessed, in practice, this will be difficult to achieve. Some reasons for this include the following two fundamental issues:

  • In many cases, but not all, individuals known to an organisation will be immediately identifiable based on work history, qualifications and other relevant experience;
  • In cases where teams are brought to presentation stage, the team becomes identifiable and the possible purpose of anonymization may become redundant. There is no tender process where the possibility of a face to face meeting, conversation, supplier briefing or presentation is precluded from taking place.

So where does this leave some of the wider issues arising from the #metoo / #timesup movement and any possible calls to bring about better diversity through public procurement contests?

It is possible that movement on this will happen regardless of the technical observations we make above. Somewhere like Trudeau’s Canada or New Zealand could look at this based on their current policy trajectory. The SNP in Scotland have already brought in provisions around the payment of a living wage as being a beneficial / advantageous criterion in contracts for areas like catering services and they could look at this also.

Positive discrimination and the ear marking of contracts for specific communities is not a new idea – it already exists in many parts of the world (e.g. Aboriginal and First Nations contracts in Canada). That is not what we are discussing here. Rather than looking at fairness in expenditure ring-fenced for specific communities, we are discussing how general procurement guidelines for the system as a whole might be impacted to achieve wider societal goals and aspirations.

Procurement inevitably reflects broader societal changes

In the EU, the procurement processes are set in law and they support openness, transparency and fairness. They specifically charge contracting authorities with ensuring processes are not prejudicial. This is why this topic is both interesting and challenging. Further to core procurement principles, there are also social, environmental and economic provisos that States are meant to examine and address in their procurement systems. This topic falls under the social pillar which covers universal labour and employment norms (amongst other things). It is not particularly clear where this might fall from an EU directives perspective. In our view, there is little to preclude any member state from adopting guidelines that promote diversity as long as they do not disadvantage anyone (if all CVs are anonymised, it is hard to see how anyone is being materially disadvantaged).

It may well be that in the future, evaluations in general or in certain sectors choose to use anonymised CVs as a convention. The reservations outlined here are technical in nature and we are aware that there are strong arguments both for and against concepts like this.

Ultimately, this is another example of how procurement systems are often little more than a looking-glass that reflect society at large and the policies and priorities in a given State at a point in time.