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Does 'social procurement' by any other name still smell as sweet?

Updated: May 10, 2018

Does it really doesn't matter what we call it?

By Tania Pouwhare, Social Intrapreneur, The Southern Initiative

There are many terms to describe the inclusion of socio-economic requirements in the procurement process - social procurement, responsible procurement, socially responsible procurement, sustainable procurement, strategic procurement, buy social, local content, responsible procurement, progressive procurement - there really is quite a list.

But it really doesn’t matter what you call it; the terms used all essentially describe the same thing in that they focus on the process of specifying and buying goods, services and works in ways that generate positive social impact and value above and beyond the primary purpose of the procurement; basically, more bang for buck.

What does matter is the quality of the practice, and that’s what we should be focusing on. Done poorly, regardless of good intentions, it can cause harm to the people you are trying to benefit.

Let's take the issue of labour market insertions (employment requirements) for people excluded from the labour market. Channeling poor people into poor quality jobs with no real prospects just compounds New Zealand's low wage, low productivity problem. Most importantly, it saps people's morale and 'bandwidth' to focus on getting a decent job and simply replaces old problems and stresses with new ones. Labour substitution is a problem that has been experienced overseas where vulnerable (and even skilled) workers have been displaced to make way for people recruited under the contract requirements. Contractor 'gaming' has been another issue; employing people for short-periods of time so they can be counted as a 'job start' (Northern Ireland's 2016 Buy Social guide has an example of a cynical contractor firing people on the second day of employment). For people entering into employment which then results in a government transfer being stopped or reduced, short-term jobs can place them at real, material disadvantage. And there are risks for suppliers - putting forward people who simply aren't work-ready or even interested in the job is a nightmare for contractors. Nothing will diminish trust and engagement in your social procurement process faster than failing to understand an employer's most basic requirements.

None of these examples is a reason to do nothing - they can be easily managed if the requirement is thought through with care and attention. To do this well you'll need a deep understanding of the needs and lived realities of both the people you are trying to affect and suppliers. The bad news is that there isn't really a short-cut; you really do need to invest time and energy before you even start writing up the tender document. The good news, however, is that this up-front investment can pay great dividends for everyone involved.

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