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Promoting gender equality and social inclusion through public procurement

A JAMboard with notes generated through discussion.

Oxford Insights have been working with the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) Global Digital Marketplace Programme and the Prosperity Fund Global Anti-Corruption programme, led by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), on public procurement reform.

The GDS Global Digital Marketplace Programme is helping to reform public procurement. Globally, government spending is colossal, approximately one-fifth of world GDP amounting to almost $13 trillion. These enormous sums of money drive economies through investment in every industry, from Artificial Intelligence to Zoology, including spend on digital and technology.

Public money builds infrastructure and stimulates markets through jobs and investment in research and development, boosting innovation. This money flows through the community and it is why public procurement is so important. ‘How’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ governments buy from suppliers impacts the quality of public services, national infrastructures and social cohesion.

The UK’s GDS has created a programme specifically focused on helping countries buy better information and communications technology (ICT). Through the Global Digital Marketplace Programme, GDS recognised the importance of examining how procurement can affect gender equality and social inclusion (GESI), including how government buyers can mainstream GESI throughout their practices.

Gender equality and social inclusion goes to the very heart of what I call ‘social purpose digital commissioning, which can be a catalyst for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Digital government transformation - of which internet-era approaches to public procurement of ICTs is critical - is a cross-cutting and enabling element of inclusive, equitable, resilient and sustainable economic reform.

(Warren Smith, GDS Global Digital Marketplace Programme Director)

GDS commissioned a team from Oxford Insights to conduct user research into best practices and to make recommendations on how to be more inclusive throughout the procurement lifecycle. In our Global Report, we make 3 key recommendations for procurement reform:

  1. define the terms ‘gender equality and social inclusion’ so that all parties are clear about what these terms mean and to which people they refer
  2. use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to promote gender equality and social inclusion in ICT Procurement
  3. require buyers to engage with women-owned and minority-owned businesses throughout the procurement lifecycle to maximise inclusion of marginalised groups

GESI-responsive ICT procurement

While conducting the research we found that neither GESI nor GESI-responsive ICT procurement had been clearly defined. We felt it was important to establish a definition to ensure all users, from procurement officials to citizens, could easily understand what we meant. We tested this with interviewees, adding to it as we were provided feedback.

We defined the terms like this:

  • gender equality is about transforming the distribution of opportunities, choices and resources available to women so that they have equal power to shape their lives and participate in the process
  • social inclusion refers to the process of improving the conditions of disadvantaged individuals and groups - such as those living with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples or other minorities

GESI policies and practices need to be implemented throughout the ICT procurement lifecycle, so that buyers and suppliers are actively incorporating GESI in decision-making. Examples of good GESI practice would be to:

  • examine a contractor’s supply chain and ownership structure
  • review existing processes to encourage tenders from a diverse range of companies
  • gather and report diversity data
  • ensure diversity within procurement teams on the buyers’ side
  • use quotas to enable women and minority-owned businesses to more easily win tenders
  • require bidders to demonstrate a commitment to GESI principles within their own organisations and supply chains
  • reduce internal inequalities through greater partnerships with service teams 

Employing good practice in procurement should also lead to buying digital and technology products which adhere to GESI standards. These products or services should be accessible to all. Examples of what this would look like in practice include ensuring computers and software meet all accessibility requirements for a variety of users. Similarly, government authorities should consider the accessibility needs of all users when designing public services including those with physical or mental disabilities.

Our research shows that GESI principles are important to ICT procurement as there is strong evidence that better representation of women, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups throughout the procurement process results in redistribution of power and financial resources to historically disadvantaged communities.

Inclusive procurement brings concrete economic and social benefits for the government, both nationally and at a local level. It provides investment in communities, supports jobs, reduces un- and under-employment and is a key factor for economic growth. As well as fostering innovation and competition, inclusive procurement also gives governments access to a wider choice of goods and services and shorter, more flexible contracts.

Key findings

GESI values should be integral to all digital and technology procurement 

Our research and analysis reveals that GESI principles should be mainstreamed at all stages in the procurement lifecycle. All too often they are an afterthought or not considered at all. To open up public procurement opportunities to a diverse supply chain, particularly locally owned businesses and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), GESI should be a guiding principle of good, inclusive procurement practice.

This includes engaging with suppliers from diverse communities to support their participation in public tendering. The GDS Global Digital Marketplace Programme will work with stakeholders to ensure gender equality and social inclusion is not just ‘nice-to-have’, but an integral feature of digital and technology procurement.

GESI mainstreaming should be intersectional

GESI mainstreaming requires paying attention to the ways in which intersecting structures of inequality can be replicated and reinforced through ICT procurement. The GDS Global Digital Marketplace Programme’s understanding of GESI principles in ICT procurement pays attention to gender as well as disability, race and class.

Attention to intersecting areas of difference within holistic procurement models can ensure that GESI goals are mainstreamed and consistently at the forefront throughout the public spending lifecycle; from digital and technology investment planning and appraisal, through to procurement and contracting, and during service delivery and implementation.

Next steps

Streamline definitions and use of terms ‘gender equality’ and ‘social inclusion’

One significant way that the GDS Global Digital Marketplace Programme seeks to align all of its work with GESI principles is through concrete and consistent use of the terms ‘gender equality’ and ‘social inclusion’.

Research suggests that a vast array of stakeholders, including government buyers and civil society suppliers, were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with GESI language. GDS will use a simple and accessible definition of GESI when talking to stakeholders, to ensure clarity between different stakeholders and promote awareness of GESI issues. Our soon to be published Global Report contains more discussion on definitions of gender and identity.

Watch out for the risks posed by COVID-19

The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis may prevent or even reverse progress towards gender equality and social inclusion within digital procurement. Governments around the world have shifted to emergency buying, rather than taking a strategic procurement approach. Emergency buying is likely to lead to governments paying less attention to the perceived ‘nice-to-haves’, such as gender equality and social inclusion in the procurement process.

The pandemic should be seen as an opportunity to reform, a “portal” through which governments can examine the flaws in their public procurement processes and imagine ways to bring about much-needed change. Sustainable Development Goal 12 explicitly advocates sustainable procurement reform as a means to advocate social and economic development. By embedding GESI principles throughout the procurement process, governments can prevent further exclusion of marginalised suppliers, and actively promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.

Use the GESI MEAL Indicator Framework

As part of its work that's supported by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union 'United for Smart Sustainable Cities' (U4SSC) initiative, the GDS Global Digital Marketplace Programme team is developing a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for internet-era approaches to public procurement of ICTs. The GESI MEAL Indicator Framework that we've developed forms part of this broader set of KPIs, and GDS will be talking more about that soon.

We are really only at the beginning of making public procurement more inclusive. As leaders of market reform, governments can be a catalyst for driving innovation, competition and redistribution of wealth to marginalised communities. The COVID-19 pandemic represents an opportunity to buy smarter, not default to emergency buying practices. We need public authorities to review existing practices, capture and measure procurement data and commit to inclusive reform. There is clearly still a lot of work to do and our research shows the huge social and economic benefits that GESI procurement offers across all communities.

For more in-depth research and recommendations, look out for our forthcoming Global Report on GESI in ICT Public Procurement. If you are interested in the programme, you can contact Iain Boyd by email.

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