The city of Somerville and the town of Brookline are teaming up to launch a major study of disparities that prevent minority- and women-owned businesses from getting their fair share of government contracts.
The two municipalities will share the costs of the study — which could run as much as a quarter million dollars — and they say that while the recommendations will be unique to each community, the findings should be broadly useable across Greater Boston to help cities and towns expand opportunities for disadvantaged businesses. Funding for the study will come from the federal pandemic relief money.
Cities generally use disparity studies to provide legal justification for implementing what effectively serve as affirmative action programs for companies, such as government contracts reserved specifically for businesses that the study found were not getting their fair share of city work.
In 2021, Boston released a disparity study showingthat 0.4% of prime contracts the city awarded to private enterprises over a five-year period went to Black-owned businesses.
In response, Mayor Michelle Wu launcheda “sheltered market” program — the first of its kind in the state — reserving certain contracts for women- or minority-owned businesses. In the first three months of that program, the city steered more than $700,000 to two minority-owned firms for cleaning and event management services.
Somerville and Brookline issued a joint request Wednesday for a contractor to conduct a disparity study for the two municipalities that will, among other things, “Determine whether a legally defensible basis exists for establishing a race and/or gender conscious contracting program … and the appropriate and most effective parameters of such a program.”
Angela Allen, Somerville’s chief procurement officer, said the city is already trying to recruit more minority- and women-owned firms to bid for city contracts, but they often get “far fewer offers than we expect we will.” The real goal to the disparity research is “to lower the barriers to entry to bid on projects,” she said. “A study will help get us a framework and a roadmap to how we go about this.”
And she said it made sense to work with Brookline on the project, and to split the costs. “We feel we're like-minded communities. Our administrations are very much in support of this project, so why not do it together?”
“We really decided early on is how can we attack this together,” said David Geanakakis, chief procurement officer for the town of Brookline. “There will be separate outcomes distinct to Brookline, distinct to Somerville, but there is enough of a commonality in the whole study process.”
And since the two communities mostly have the same purchasing needs and the same pool of potential vendors, it allows them to seek solutions that are applicable to both of them — and, Geanakakis said, to a broader swath of Greater Boston as well.
Brookline and Somerville have briefed other local communities on the research plan, he said, and promised to share results and recommendations that could be useful without each municipality having to do its own study. “We really were driven in both of the communities here to do this and frankly, take the lead," he said.
Luis Quizhpe, Somerville’s strategic planning and equity manager, noted that the project also extends beyond women and people of color to include all “socially disadvantaged individuals.”
That language “really kind of broadens how we think of someone who we're trying to help equitably,” he said, because it focuses on who might be facing structural barriers to their success, rather than focusing on categories and descriptions — like “minority” — that essentially define people by how they are disempowered.
“I think that that language, albeit small … gives back a sense of self-determination or at least the intent of self-determination,” Quizhpe said.