Disrupting Acquisition Blog

Federal Acquisition Regulation Through the Equity Lens

by | May 18, 2021 | Policy

Senior man in wheelchair stopped by stairs

What brilliant solutions never make it to the Acquisition table because we don’t realize we’re putting up barriers, whether physical, economic, or social?

Inequity: A lack of fairness or justice. Can be revealed by disparate and/or disproportionate outcomes experienced by different groups.  —  MITRE Equity Assessment Framework 

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) tells us that Contracting Officers shall be fair, impartial, and equitable when it comes to dealing with contractors. The problem is—and, unless you are personally affected, you probably won’t realize it’s a problem—the term equitable is usually treated as a synonym for equal.

Now more than ever, it is important to view acquisition through an equity lens. That includes pitch days, contractor and government presentations, and procurements that involve needs specific to particular communities, especially those socio-economic communities that are underserved or underrepresented. We need to be able to tap into industry and academia’s brilliant ideas and not only do we need to be aware of the kinds of procedural barriers needed to entice non-traditional defense contractors to partner up with the DoD, but we need to be aware of other types of barriers, including historic, systemic, physical, economic, and social. Those barriers can keep the Government from collaborating with vendors who have tomorrow’s technology that we need to be exploring today.

Equitable is a much bigger word than equal and a much more nuanced term. Contracting Officers and Program Managers may have a sense of fairness that was taught to them as children—or was drilled into them as professionals—but unless they are personally affected, they will often think of fair and impartial as synonymous with giving everyone an equal amount of something or equal access to something. Let’s look at a non-Acquisition example of equality vs equity.

Party at your place! You can divvy up that freshly delivered, super-duper-sized, triple-cheese pizza into twelve equal slices.  Seems fair, right?  Of your twelve invited guests, one is a celiac who can’t eat the crust, one has a medical diet that restricts milk products, and one has no transportation to the party. Even though you planned on pizza for twelve, you have three slices left over so those who are present and able to partake get extra slices. Or, if you are determined to be “fair,” you could throw away the remaining three slices so everyone gets an equal share whether they can participate or not.

What would your pizza party look like if you focused on being equitable rather than equal?   You might have gluten-free pizza crust with non-dairy cheese and order an Uber or Lyft for the guest without transportation.  The emphasis is on meeting individual needs in order to create equal opportunity to eat pizza with friends.

Providing equitable access and opportunities are more important now than ever because of who isn’t able to come to the Acquisition table. More than ever, the DoD needs those new ideas for game-changing technologies that are found predominantly in industry and academia. It is not enough just to lower the barriers for non-traditional defense contractors, but we need to lower the literal barriers as well.

Let’s think about three scenarios and how we’ve been fair traditionally by thinking in terms of being equal versus equitable, without even realizing it.

Scenario #1: Physical Barriers for Seen and Invisible Physical Disabilities

You decide to hold an industry day with day-long classified briefings. Attendees will begin signing into the cleared facility at 7 AM with a breakfast of donuts and coffee provided prior to opening remarks at 8:15 AM. Box lunches will be delivered at noon, to include a soft drink, bag of chips, and an oversized chocolate chip cookie with a sandwich. As the organizer of the industry briefing, you feel good about what you’ve done. You’ve given everyone—as far as you know—who has the right clearances access to the right briefings so that they will be able to propose a solution to a dire problem. Everyone has the same access to the Government experts. Everyone must be there to start on time and leave on time, with everyone able to move freely about once they are inside the facility. However, because the briefings are classified, they are not allowed to bring in any possessions, including smartwatches and phones.

All this seems perfectly logical. The problem is that you have a properly cleared world-class expert who’d like to attend, meet with a large business while there for potential partnership, and maybe solve your problem in a new and different way. Unfortunately, that world class expert is diabetic and can’t eat your donuts, chocolate chip cookie, chips, and maybe not the sandwich. They also can’t go all day without proper food and water, and you’ve already stated that no personal items, including food, will be allowed in.

On a personal note, let me tell you as a diabetic, I scope out every conference and hours-long meetings I attend to make sure I’ll have easy access to water and the right kind of food at the right times, that I have any necessary medication with me, and that I can monitor my blood glucose easily if I feel wonky.  If you think that is a pain in the butt for you or for other people, let’s just say it is not exactly fun for me. If you’ve not noticed us, well, we are many and we usually try not to attract attention at work. We’d prefer you remember us for our contributions and not our polite avoidance of sugary or carby desserts at a catered event.

Back to our world-class expert who may not be a contributor to solving your problem.  While you were being as equal as possible to all potential contractors and even going out of your way to make it a pleasant day-long experience, you inadvertently set up a barrier for one of the experts you wanted to participate.

If you stop for a moment to consider the scenario through the equity lens, you stop looking at how you are giving everyone an equal share of the proverbial pie and instead start looking at who can’t come to the table or share in the pie. Since the briefing material is classified, you may indeed need to have your audience physically present. Possibly you may be able to have a virtual and physical unclassified briefing and provide a reading room for viewing of materials or some other solution. Unless you yourself have medical issues or disabilities, you probably are not thinking about an audience that needs more bio breaks than you do or the challenges of a restrictive diet or why some attendees insist on sitting in the back of the room near the exits (and restrooms). You may also not have considered that your cleared facility has only one handicapped parking spot or that the briefings will be held on the second floor of a building that has no elevators.

What can you do to give as many as possible a seat at the Acquisition table? Might you start with a simple sentence or two in the invitation to the briefing that says essentially, if you have any dietary restrictions or disability concerns, please notify us to discuss reasonable accommodations? Sure, that person could speak up and let you know your plans will be a significant barrier, but introverts have their own difficulties in expressing their needs and other people have been trained from birth not to be a “bother.” Ideally, everyone could self-advocate but that takes energy that could be put to better use solving DoD problems.

Consider ways you could flatten those barriers. Maybe you need to have the briefing in a different facility. Or maybe on a different floor.  Or maybe you need to block off a few more parking spaces. Or maybe those boxed lunches can include salads as an alternative.

Scenario #2: Economic Barriers and Physical Barriers

You are holding a pitch day event. You’ve decided that the way to be equitable is to have everyone present their ideas orally in a twenty-minute block. All contenders in the two-day event are to be present in Washington, D.C., for the opening remarks, closing remarks where winners are announced, and a half-hour time slot for a pitch with questions from evaluators.

If you view this through an equity lens, you’ll see a couple of problems right away. Small businesses with extremely tight budgets may not be able to afford cross-country flights and hotel stays for three to four days. Although face-to-face pitches are preferred because evaluators can reach fuller confidence in a pitch by seeing the body language of the presenters, a virtual presentation with cameras on may suffice. Even if finances aren’t an issue, not everyone is medically able to travel great distances or able to be away from family members who depend on their close presence.

For example, when is a one-day trip not a one-day trip?  Ask someone with medical issues or who cares for family members with medical issues.  Don’t automatically assume that a participant can wake up at 3 AM to get to the airport in time for an early flight for a meeting that starts at 8 AM, then catch a flight back at 8 PM and arrive home shortly before midnight.  That one-day turnaround can spell disaster for their eating and sleeping schedules that keep them well and productive, and they may need to fly in the day before and out the day after to avoid suffering a medical setback.

As for financial barriers, not having the budget to pay for one or more roundtrip flights and lodging is not a sign that the small business lacks seriousness or intentions of success.  I’ve heard Government personnel actually say a company shouldn’t be in the business if they aren’t prepared to spend money to market to the Government; however, it seems prudent not to go into debt to attend face-to-face events that not only need a significant travel budget over the course of a year but also take key personnel out of the office for days at a time and away from revenue-producing work. Small businesses have only so many resources and they have to make smart decisions about which ones are most likely to give a return on their investment of time and travel money.  A virtual meeting in the morning with a Program Office in Texas doesn’t preclude a virtual meeting in the afternoon with an innovation hub in Virginia, so virtual meetings can give them twice the opportunities.

Another problem with pitch days that I’ve never seen or heard discussed is the issue of speaking disabilities and temporal accessibility. For as strong an advocate of oral proposals as I am—and pitch days, too—I never even thought about this until I listened to “Made to be Broken: Act 1, Time Bandit,” episode 713 of “This American Life,” in which the differently-abled speaker explains that he needs more than the allotted time to make his presentation due to disabled speech. It’s a very effective episode and worth listening to.

Scenario #3:  Social/Cultural Barriers

In this particular scenario, let’s imagine you are a Contracting Officer buying services to address the needs of a unique and underserved community. You don’t know anyone in this community. There is no one on your source selection team who is a member of this community. There is a long history of cultural disconnects with this community because previous contractors have developed solutions that reflected their own communities and not the one they are attempting to serve. You write a multimillion-dollar contract, award it to a vendor that does not represent this community in any form, and yet wonder why there is so much frustration from the contractor, the community, and government liaisons.

Looking at this scenario through an equity lens, it makes sense that the community itself should be involved in expressing what their need is and the type of solution they’re looking for. If members of the community can be brought into the requirements writing process or the evaluation process as “citizen experts” of their community, then the Government will have a better understanding of how to meet those needs successfully.  These citizen experts will have a unique lens which can help them create more innovative solutions to their own problems, so their involvement in solving the problems in their community is an important collaborative step in the Acquisition process.

 

You may think you’re being fair because of your own frame of reference and completely miss the underlying problems because you don’t know what you don’t know.  There’s a universality to emotion:  we all know how it feels to love and grieve and fear and rage, even if only in silence.  We mistake that universality of emotion for a universality of experience and think we all experience the world and its injustices in the same way.  We see everyone else’s experience through the lens of our own because, no matter how empathetic, we cannot fully know any other existence than the one we’ve lived.

Will going the extra few steps to think through who we’re keeping away from the Acquisition table and how to resolve that be a burden for the Government?  If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll probably feel to some degree that it is. Rather than feeling we’re being impacted negatively by someone else’s physical, financial, or cultural situation, let’s shift our thinking to what if we can’t lower those barriers and don’t get the benefit of what they can bring to the Acquisition table.  It benefits all of us.

Need help in figuring out the next steps?  Who’s missing? What bias and assumptions are you unintentionally embedding into the process? Visit  ITK Stakeholder Identification canvas and Problem Framing canvas for helpful next steps. 

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Disclaimer:  The opinions expressed here are those of the authors only and do not represent the positions of the MITRE Corporation or its sponsors.

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