What is the best way to take supplier diversity, inclusion, and equity beyond good intentions?

Posted on November 25, 2020


Back in 2008, when the Commonwealth of Virginia asked me to write a review of their SWAM initiative, I was at once hopeful, impressed, and concerned.

I was hopeful in that like many; I believe that diversity of the supply base is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing as well. I was impressed because, like Virginia’s highly successful eVA program, the Commonwealth was once again demonstrating creative and proactive leadership.

However, tempering my hope and enthusiasm were lingering concerns regarding the execution of both the policy and process. In other words, and like similar initiatives, would the same bureaucracy that undermined previous efforts in this area in both the public and private sector derail good intentions and promising opportunities.

A Common Practice

While the common practice of establishing set-aside programs for traditionally underutilized suppliers has been a critical lever for governments, the efforts have, in many instances, done more harm than good. The reason is that there has been an unspoken intimation that the benefactors of these programs are somehow unable to fend for themselves and therefore require the bolstered support of “big brother” to level the playing field.

It is something similar to when my big brother was “persuaded” by my mother to let me tag along to his sandlot football games with the admonishment that he should make sure that “Jon was allowed to get into the game and catch a few.” By the way, with age, I got bigger and ironically better so that the tag-along label was replaced by a “make sure you bring Jon to the next game” refrain from his friends.

My point here is that at the time, I needed my mother’s intervention to make sure that I got the chance to play. However, had I not possessed the necessary ability and opportunity to develop into a good player, I would have ultimately lost interest and move on to other pursuits.

In much the same way, traditional set-aside initiatives get the suppliers in the game. However, without an effectively run program in which there is a proper assessment and alignment of suppliers’ offerings to ensure their optimal success, the majority of programs will continue to be “fashionably ineffective.”

At the time, I was encouraged that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s SWaM program was different.

SWaM’s Broader View of a Complex Policy

Rather than taking a narrowly defined, traditional view of “targeted” engagement, SWaM was unencumbered by earlier, well-intentioned but inherently flawed set-aside programs.

Recognizing the increasing importance of developing a diversely strong supply base, Virginia believed that through active and strategic engagement, SWaM organizations would gain both the revenue and core competencies to compete both domestically and on the global stage.

Additionally, and by developing guidelines based on merit instead of entitlement, the Commonwealth was also ensuring that they were achieving their internal strategic objectives from a best value standpoint.

A “True” Win-Win

The financial impact of SWaM was, of course, significant and measurable, which means that the program was able to cross the contradictory chasm of “being the right thing” to do to “being the smart thing” to do.

It also meant that SWaM was a program worth championing as well as emulating.

Unfortunately, here we are in 2020 and I fear we have not progressed far enough beyond where we were in 2008. The failure to build on past successes is the reason why Procurement Foundry’s Supplier Diversity and Inclusion event in February is so essential.

If you believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion, then your attendance is your chance to make a difference.

Posted in: Commentary