A Procurement Pathway to Equity

A guest post from Fearless National Security Portfolio Director David Simeon.

Every year federal, state, and local governments in the United States collectively spend $3.5 trillion on contracts. A government contract can be transformative for a company and its community, but in my years of working in and with the government, I continually see a small pool of companies win contracts with the government, especially in the IT sector.

In the IT sector alone, government spends nearly $90 billion on IT-related projects. A small piece of $90 billion can help a small company grow and create more jobs. Whether it’s racial wealth disparities or geographic wealth disparities, government absolutely can address these problems and government procurement is a tool that is part of the solution. This is a critical problem to solve and we should look at this not just from the business side but also from the perspective of ‘how do we uplift individuals and help them build a future.’

I spoke at the Code for America Summit about how changes in our government’s procurement practices can better engage diverse vendors and underrepresented civic technologists, and ultimately deliver more equitable services and opportunities.

Become more innovative with equitable procurement practices

Traditionally, government contracts involving major IT investments are an all-or-nothing proposition. A half-billion dollar 3–5 year contract is issued without little encouragement or motivation to experiment. This process was developed and has continued to be used because it has worked.

Security is very important to government, and it makes sense, but that desire for security and or known entities leads to government working with the same contractors repeatedly. Intentionally or unintentionally, this procurement strategy gives fewer chances to smaller, newer companies which are often led by women or minorities. The status quo is the safe move.

There is a tendency to think the larger businesses have to perform work on the large contracts but in many cases the smaller businesses are just as capable of doing the work and capable of finding partners to deliver the outcomes.

I encourage government procurement professionals to use their existing authority to experiment with smaller vendors and be able to have them come in and show different techniques to get the outcomes government is looking for.

Redefine what junior means

Very few IT positions connected to government work are truly entry-level or do not require other IT work experience. Often a “junior” role requires a person to have a computer science degree and 2–3 years on-the-job experience. These job requirements leave out a growing portion of the tech workforce, individuals who have completed software development bootcamps instead of a traditional degree program.

Most people coming out of a bootcamp have the skills to do some of the lower level work on a contract, in the junior category, and government could help bring some of those people along and invest in technologists to become more experienced in the long-run.

At Fearless, we work with Catalyte. Catalyte uses machine learning to objectively discover and train candidates who have the potential to become talented software engineers. Background or education isn’t a factor when determining who can be a software engineer at Catalyte. And the platform boasts that program participants see their salary increase 4-fold in the 5 years after going through the Catalyte program.

Programs like Catalyte give people the opportunity to get into tech through non-traditional pathways.

Consider what the average junior dev makes in the United States, it’s about $64,000. Areas like Baltimore, the Southside of Chicago, or Martinsburg, you are looking at a median income between $25–35k. Think of the transformative change a person from one of those areas will see in their life if they are able to complete a bootcamp and then gain employment through an IT government contract. The change will ripple beyond them, to their family and into their community.

Examples of equitable IT opportunities in government

The Department of Defense is doing a lot of work to bring tech skills to more service members. We work with the Air Force’s BESPIN program. BESPIN and other Air Force software factories train men and women to code to work on Air Force projects and further develop their IT skill set.

While it is important for government to diversity more within its departments and agencies, there will always be a place for vendors and contractors. The government is legally obligated to put out a certain amount of business for vendors/companies to compete for. So while government can solve some of the diversity issues in-house, a diverse contracting community is key.

Hear more from David about the case for equitable procurement in this Code for America Summit talk.

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