Diversity and intersectionality in procurement
In this in-depth article we explore how public sector procurement and digital transformation can impact diversity, intersectionality and inclusion.
Article written by Hannah Wiggins
Client Delivery Executive, Advice Cloud
The world of digital transformation is starting to become more diverse. Not only can technology be an enabler of inclusion and intersectionality, but the organisations who sit behind these solutions are diversifying.
However, there is a lot of work to be done, and the scales are by no means balanced. The development of both digital solutions, and procurement practices to obtain such technologies, still fail to fully recognise the intersecting needs of disadvantaged and marginalised groups. This covers gender, race and ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and more.
Goals and issues
In August 2020 Oxford Insights published a Discovery Report, providing recommendations for improving Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) in ICT procurement. The report highlights how “GESI principles are important to ICT procurement because they open up opportunities to more SMEs including those run by women, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups”.
The report also supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), specifically:
- Goal 5: To achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
- Goal 12: To ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
So, there are targets are in place and the guidance exists to promote diversity and intersectionality when it comes to digital transformation and public sector procurement. But how does this look in practice? Let’s take a look at the key points of discussion.
Accessibility and standards
There are several ways that we can approach accessibility when it comes to public sector digital transformation.
Firstly, if there are any positives that we can take from the COVID-19 pandemic, the move to remote working shifted in the way that organisations approach challenges and understand their workforce. Consequently, a window has opened for employers to be more accommodating to the needs of people with different abilities, improving accessibility in many cases.
Secondly, a number of assistive technologies have rapidly developed over the past 12 months, in order to accommodate the needs and challenges of those with disabilities. One example comes from the deaf and hearing-impaired community, and the use of Artificial Intelligence to develop and improve “live captions” in digital conferencing tools. Most major platforms now incorporate these, and the accuracy of such tools have majorly increased. Find out more here.
Thirdly, public sector standards and guidelines do exist in order to promote and ensure accessibility in the provision of digital solutions – such as ISO405000:2012 or WCAG 2.0. Individuals can also report an accessibility problem on a public sector website.
However, of course, access issues continue to exist, and it is crucial to acknowledge disability from an intersectional perspective. An accessibility tool that works for one individual will not be suitable for another, and a key area of concern is the lack of consistency of standards and resources across different digital solutions.
Equality of access for all members of society is crucial when it comes to digital transformation, and it is the responsibility of both the developers of such solutions, and those who procure them, to ensure that no one is left behind.
Data and representation
In October 2020, Shabira Papain, Head of Equality, Health Inequalities & Digital Inclusion at NHSx, held a talk about Building Intersectionality in Digital Transformation. A key focus of the session was the use of data in developing digital solutions. That is, so often the demographic used in research to establish citizen needs fails to represent the true diversity of the UK population. This is a particularly serious issue in the NHS, as the solutions, resources and treatments made available to patients are often based on biased data, and do not meet the needs of the entire population.
The Oxford Insights report supports this, stating that “data is not neutral and sexism, racism and ableism can all manifest and datasets may under-represent or misrepresent marginalised groups”
So, this is undoubtably an area where further change is needed; but some progress is being made. The UN’s recommendations for a Human rights-based approach to data provides some key recommendations in order to maximise inclusivity:
- Participation of relevant population groups in data collection exercises
- Data disaggregation to understand specific groups
- Self-identification in data collection
- Transparency of data
- Privacy of individual responses
- Accountability in upholding human rights
For an in-depth look at the ways in which data science and data ethics can take a more intersectional approach, read here.
Business ownership and gender balance
According to the Corporate Guide to Gender-Responsive Procurement, 35% of all SMEs are owned by women; higher when other intersections are taken into account. And this figure is steadily rising. By no means does this suggest that equality has been achieved here. Until there is a 50/50 gender balance the work is not nearly complete; and that’s before we consider the various other intersections. However, evidence suggests that the barriers that have previously prevented women-owned businesses from participating in the economy, are starting to shift.
Crucially, the 2016 UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment noted that including women in the value chain contributed to “to each link of the business value chain.” In short, improving the gender balance in public sector ICT procurement could have a fundamental impact on digital transformation across the UK. The more diverse the supplier landscape, the higher likelihood there is of innovative digital solutions being produced and made available to UK citizens.
Interestingly, the government’s SME action plan – which includes the goal to spend £1 in every £3 with SMEs by 2022 – has the potential to make a real difference to the ease with which women and minority owned businesses can access the public sector market. But, there is more that the government could be doing to improve outreach to a more diverse scope of businesses.
Government procurement responsibilities
As above, if the government is to procure ICT and digital service inclusively, they need to understand the presence of minority groups in the supplier market and the wider community. Crucially, the push for equality and inclusion must be reflected in their procurement practices, and the Oxford Insights report highlights three general areas where this could be achieved:
- Project design: Commission projects that (directly or indirectly) benefit communities or companies led by marginalised or disadvantaged groups.
- Procurement process: Ensure fair access to competition for companies led by marginalised or disadvantaged groups, across the procurement lifecycle.
- Environment: Create an environment in which companies led by marginalised or disadvantaged groups are able to flourish and supply to the government.
It is all well and good making these suggestions, but how may this play out in practice? The discovery report addresses this question with the following recommendations:
- Ensuring diversity within procurement teams on the buyers’ side
- Gathering and reporting diversity data
- The use of quotas to enable women and minority-owned businesses to more easily win tenders
- Reviewing existing processes to encourage tenders from a diverse range of companies
- Requiring bidders to demonstrate a commitment to GESI principles within their own organisations and supply chains
- Reducing internal inequalities in government service teams.
To summarise, diversity and intersectionality in public sector digital transformation does not just arise from the development of solutions which directly benefit the marginalised. We must also examine the processes in place to promote and develop a diverse supply chain, ensuring that fair competition process, really are, fair. The work is being done here, but there is a still a long way to go.
This think piece only begins to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding inequalities in public sector procurement, and there is certainly a lot of room for improvement. However, by examining some focal points of discussion in this area, we hope to have highlighted the importance of diversity and intersectionality in procurement and digital transformation. Public services need to be available to everybody; be it buyer, supplier or citizen.