How Toronto is using its purchasing power to drive inclusive growth

Toronto's new Social Procurement Policy aims to harness public spending to raise residents out of poverty. (DayOwl/Shutterstock.com)

TORONTO, Canada — Every year, the city of Toronto spends about CAD 1.8 billion (USD 1.35 billion) on goods and services, from large construction projects to one-off catering contracts. Now, the city wants to harness that procurement power to help raise minorities, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and people with disabilities out of poverty.

Since 1 January, Toronto has been implementing a new Social Procurement Policy. The policy  establishes clear guidelines and tools to ensure that businesses owned by members of disadvantaged groups participate in the bidding process for public contracts. It also aims to ensure that businesses contracting with the city hire and train a diverse workforce. Vendors working on large city contracts are encouraged to participate in workforce development programmes with vulnerable groups, such as youth.

Supplier diversity programmes for minorities and women are already well established in the United States. And procurement schemes focusing on social goals are multiplying in other countries, notably in the United Kingdom and Australia. Requirements that large infrastructure or development projects benefit the local community — usually through local hires — also are taking root in these places.

But Canada has been late to adopt similar initiatives, both in the public and private sectors. With its Social Procurement Policy, Toronto not only wants to catch up with other global cities. It’s also playing a leadership role for Canadian public institutions that are interested in channeling their procurement needs to help build more equitable communities, deploying a unique strategy that blends elements of the American and European approaches.

“City Hall is playing a leadership role by championing social procurement as a corporate and operational goal,” says Colette Murphy, executive director of the Atkinson Foundation, which promotes social and economic justice in Ontario. “The city is a pioneer.”

Navigating red tape

Denise Campbell is a director at the city of Toronto’s Social Development, Finance & Administration division, and has been a champion of social procurement for a decade. Her interest was first piqued while working on city-led development projects in low-income neighbourhoods.

As she recalls, community members were asking whether local youth could be employed on public works projects. She tried creating a programme to give them access to these jobs but kept hitting roadblocks. City leaders were concerned about the legal aspects of such a programme and violating trade agreements with local unions. “At the time, 2006, we were risk-averse,” she says. “It seemed risky and complicated, and so administratively there wasn’t an interest in pursuing it.”

Over the next ten years, Campbell kept trying informal approaches to hire and train young people on public construction projects, but she could never turn one-off projects into policy. In 2012, however, she found a new ally in Michael Pacholok, who, as the city’s new Chief Procurement Officer, took over the department in charge of awarding the larger city contracts for goods and services.

Denise Campbell has been a champion of social procurement in Toronto for a decade.

Pacholok was aware the procurement process was too bureaucratic for small- and medium-sized enterprises, and was already reflecting on how to incorporate diverse companies into the city’s supply chain. When Denise Campbell’s team approached him to discuss how to leverage city contracts as a way to strengthen economic inclusion, Pacholok saw an opportunity for both divisions to work on common goals. “They had done a pilot project before that was successful,” Pacholok recalls, “so I was intrigued by how this would work.”

At the same time, Toronto was getting ready for the 2015 Pan American Games, the largest sport event ever hosted by the city. The City Council required the Organizing Committee to include a social procurement clause in municipal contracts linked to the Games; this would serve as tangible proof that social procurement could be implemented in spite of administrative constraints and legal concerns.

[See: Dakar hires residents, instead of machines, to pave streets]

The culture at City Hall was changing. A growing number of reports were sounding the alarm on a rise in poverty, food insecurity and lack of affordable housing, especially in Toronto’s inner suburban areas. Nineteen percent of residents are now considered low-income, and 27 percent of children live in poverty. In 2014, John Tory was elected mayor and made poverty reduction one of his priorities. In 2015, the city adopted the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy, a 20-year, multi-sectoral policy that served as a major rationale to support social procurement.

“It is one of our signature initiatives from the Poverty Reduction Strategy,” explains Campbell, who also headed up development of the anti-poverty policy. “It was important for me to include social procurement in that strategy, just one more thing that reinforces to Council, the vendor community and ourselves that [the strategy] is an important systemic tool if we use it right.”

Creating opportunities

Diverse suppliers cite a number of barriers that prevent them from accessing contracts, both in the private and public sectors. Finding out about requests for proposals in the first place can be difficult. Even harder for these firms, which tend to be small in size, is going through the bidding process and competing with larger, more established firms. On both sides of the procurement process, there’s a mutual lack of knowledge that prevents diverse suppliers from getting into the game.

“There is a perception that there aren’t enough diverse suppliers out there,” says Cassandra Dorrington, president of the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council, or CAMSC. “It isn’t true.”

CAMSC is one of the organizations that partnered with City Hall on the new procurement policy. So did Women’s Business Enterprises (WBE Canada), the Canadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) and the Social Purchasing Project (SPP). The groups help city purchasers identify diverse suppliers, help vendors find diverse subcontractors, and generally help members build capacity to bid for contracts. (A new partnership is being set up with an organization working with people with disabilities.)

Cassandra Dorrington (right) of the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council says the perception that there aren’t diverse suppliers isn’t true. (CAMSC

These partnerships are one of the ways Toronto’s policy may differ from that of other cities in North America. The city of Chicago, for instance, identifies diverse suppliers through an in-house certification process.

“In the United States, there is a very robust legal framework to target minority-owned suppliers in a way that we can’t do in Canada and in Ontario,” explains Wayne Chu, a policy development officer working with Denise Campbell at City Hall. Chu cites the Province of Ontario’s Human Rights Code, which prevents public and private purchasers from collecting information on a vendor such as race, sexual orientation or disability.

“So the requirements that we have in the programme,” Chu says, “are tailored very specifically to be compliant with our legal obligations.”

Pilot tests

Legal requirements aside, the policy had to be built mostly from the ground up because the team couldn’t find enough detailed examples of existing best practices to be replicated in Toronto.

As Campbell says, “We wanted examples of language for ‘call’ documents. We wanted to understand scoring in competitive processes. We wanted to understand how people are making the business case when facing questions such as, ‘Will this make procurement more expensive for us as a procuring organization?’ Even when we talked to people, those details were very hard to pull out.”

Instead of writing a policy based on international best practices, Campbell’s team ended up adopting a more exploratory approach, running pilots to test their assumptions before eventually drafting the policy.

One of these pilots sought to explore how regular suppliers could embed elements of social procurement or workforce development into their own operations. For example, Black & Veatch, an engineering company working on water infrastructure projects, ended up sub-contracting with a minority-owned printing company, and later hired two engineers who were part of a mentorship programme for recent immigrants.

“[The city was] looking for ways to identify organizations and companies that could essentially provide the same service at the same price,” recalls David London, project manager at Black & Veatch. “It was just a matter of figuring out how to identify these companies. But once we were able to do that, it was very easy.”

London explains the process was not about giving preferential treatment; to be considered for a contract, diverse suppliers must abide by the same rules as others, including bidding at the lowest price. And the two engineers hired through the mentorship program were selected because their qualifications were the same or better than those of other candidates.

[See: How Barcelona and Philadelphia are turning procurement upside down]

The policy doesn’t use quotas, but rather encourages city divisions in charge of their own procurement and regular vendors to seek out diverse businesses. When bidding for a contract, vendors may earn points for making plans to sub-contract a diverse supplier, for instance. The city’s Procurement, Social Development, Housing, and Employment and Social Services divisions, as well as its Economic Development Commission, are all participating in Social Procurement by helping regular vendors identify opportunities for workforce development through one of their existing programmes, with a particular focus on youth employment.

All of this is expected to come at no extra cost for the city, which has only committed to hiring one additional staffer to work on the policy’s implementation. Each division is expected to streamline the new procurement guidelines into their regular activities.

Anchor institutions

By 2021, the city hopes that a third of contracts worth more than CAD 5 million (USD 3.7 million) will include a workforce development component that includes hiring and training workers belonging to vulnerable groups, like immigrants, youth or people with disabilities. Other goals are that 75 percent of proposals sent by suppliers will include a workforce development programme, and that 50 percent of direct suppliers will have or will be developing a diversity policy for their supply chains.

Staff from the various city divisions engaged in the policy are still working on establishing the tools and metrics that will help measure its actual impact.

But the city of Toronto is already looking beyond its own procurement power to other players in the region. The city is part of AnchorTO, a group of 18 local institutions that include hospitals, public authorities and universities looking to use their combined CAD 17 billion (USD 12.7 billion) annual spending to drive inclusive economic growth.

[See: Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure]

One such effort is being led by the metropolitan transit authority Metrolinx. For a CAD 5.3 billion (USD 3.96 billion) light-rail project, Metrolinx has committed to hire among historically disadvantaged and marginalized groups for part of its construction workforce.

“Government is making the most significant investment in public transit in two decades,” says Colette Murphy of the Atkinson Foundation, which supported the development of AnchorTO. “Metrolinx is doing it in a way that is intentionally looking at how they can integrate good job opportunities, apprenticeships, social enterprises, spending opportunities for residents who have not had access or have benefited from economic development in the past.”

“Our public institutions need to think of themselves as public wealth builders.”

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Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montréal who covers cities and international social issues. She is currently reporting on the economic impact of refugee crises through her project #RefugeeEconomics. Full bio

LEARNING FROM TORONTO

  • The city’s new Social Procurement Policy aims to ensure that businesses owned by minorities, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and people with disabilities participate in bidding for public contracts.
  • City agencies are helping regular vendors identify opportunities for workforce development, with a focus on youth employment.
  • The city is part of a group of 18 local institutions that are trying to use their combined spending power to drive inclusive economic growth.

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