Federal agencies make strides for equity in government contracting

February 21, 2024

All major federal agencies have updated their equity action plans, part of a nationwide effort to invest in underrepresented communities and address disparities in safety and representation of minorities.

The updated reports are mandated by a federal executive order to further advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. The Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are among the agencies who have released updated plans.

“With public infrastructure, what we’re referring to when we talk about equity is essentially the distribution of burdens and benefits across people, places and policies,” Victoria Johnson, global equity director for HDR Engineering, Inc., said. “And a lot of that is rooted in race, income and geography.”

Johnson was speaking to “The Connection: Partnering Public & Private Entities,” a companion podcast to Government Market News that focuses on navigating the intricacies of government procurement, public-private partnerships and policy innovation. Episode 4, which features Johnson, addresses diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in contracting and infrastructure.

Released annually, the updated equity reports highlight ways each department has increased opportunities for underrepresented communities, especially Black-, Hispanic- and women-owned small businesses, and how they plan to expand those opportunities in the future. In addition to those required by law, over 65 small and independent agencies released action plans in 2022.

For example, the DOT awarded $185 million to disadvantaged communities through the Reconnecting Communities pilot program to offer grants for planning and construction. DOT also published a $3 billion notice of funding (NOFO) for the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods (RCN) program for projects that advance “community centered connection.”

The department has also increased its contract investments in small, disadvantaged businesses by 16.7%. With applicants from disadvantaged communities currently making up 25% of new applicants in DOT programs, the department projects a 5% increase by FY 2025.

The DOE has also seen improvements in equity since last year. Specifically, their Office of Management used market research tools to increase awards to underrepresented communities, resulting in $70.5 million for women-owned small businesses, $55.6 million for veteran-owned small businesses and $38.5 million for tribal-owned and Native American-owned small businesses.

“DOE’s 2023 Equity Action opens more opportunities for these communities to fully participate in the benefits of the Department’s historic clean energy investments,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement. “I’m proud to announce this major milestone to advance equity and a continued commitment to advancing equal opportunity for all Americans.”

Recognizing the unique obstacles small businesses face in procuring federal contracts, the USDA implemented a procurement forecast webpage to facilitate finding opportunities with more ease.

“Equity takes a willingness to speak up and find solutions when resources aren’t reaching people who need them most,” Agriculture Deputy Secretary Torres Small said in a statement. “The Equity Commission is doing the hard work of identifying ways USDA can best support farmers, farm workers, and a food system that serves us all.”

Outside of government entities, the Equity in Infrastructure Project (EIP) has a mission to “build generational wealth and reduce the racial wealth gap by creating more prime, joint venture and equity contracting opportunities” for historically underutilized businesses (HUBs). Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBES), Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBE) and Small Business Enterprises (SBE) are included in their definition of HUBs.

Last year, EIP’s public agency pledge signers grew to 56. By signing the pledge, these agencies, including 19 state DOTs, make an organizational commitment to increase contract opportunities and funding options for HUBs.

Photo courtesy of the United Minority Contractors of North Carolina

Gracie Warhurst

Gracie Warhurst has joined Strategic Partnerships, Inc. as a writer and digital content creator for the new Government Market News portal. With a rich background in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, Warhurst has experience as editor-in-chief of a literary magazine, assistant web editor, and project manager for an AI journalism project. She also contributed as a reporter during the development of SPI's news portal. Warhurst graduated summa cum laude in December 2023 with a Bachelor's in Journalism and a certificate in creative writing, making her a valuable asset to the SPI team.

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