Portland adopted a suite of initiatives in 2012 to use the impressive purchasing power of City Hall to correct race and gender disparities in construction contracting. The initiatives provide opportunities for owners of state-certified, socially disadvantaged businesses to build projects worth tens of millions of dollars, for women and people of color to learn a trade, and for City government to make Portland a fairer society.
But results speak louder than the promise of opportunity. Evidence shows these initiatives reduced disparities, but they also suffered from design flaws and mismanagement, and were vulnerable to gamesmanship.
Though parts of the City’s contracting equity programs work as designed, they are unpopular with many key constituents. This dissatisfaction stems, in part, from mismanaging some programs and failing to communicate successes that did occur. It also comes from legal restrictions that constrain the City’s ability to choose contractors because of their race and gender in all but the narrowest circumstances.
What’s more, the City officials responsible for administering the contracting equity system report being disempowered, disengaged, and without requisite funding and oversight. The result is dissatisfaction from top to bottom, inside and outside the government. Understanding the missteps and the reasons for them is the first act toward their correction.