Best price or best practice? - How government fails at gender responsive procurement

Government departments surveyed by the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) is failing at gender responsive procurement and generally show a lack of understanding of these critical transformation provisions, a recent report found. The CGE in the 2018/19 financial year surveyed a small sample of departments on their gender transformation efforts in public procurement. The CGE’s report tabled in Parliament in June showed most of the departments surveyed failed to integrate gender as a main component in their procurement practices.

This is particularly concerning given the governing party’s undertaking in its election manifesto to “mainstream gender equality and the needs of people with disability into all facets of planning, budgeting, monitoring and accounting, including performance indicators and targets in government programmes”. Government’s almost R800bn procurement programme is one way to reform ownership of the economy to benefit women, but the CGE’s findings do not bode well for the rest of government and public procurement.

Executive Director of the Human Sciences Research Council’s Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Research Programme Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller told Parlybeat that the concerning numbers show lip service is paid to gender mainstreaming. “It is not really taken seriously,” Bohler-Muller said. “The government should take the UN Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs) seriously. “If we are committed to improving the lives of women, we need to put our money where our mouths are.” In response to the President’s State of the Nation Address in February this year, former Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini acknowledged that women must benefit from government’s commitment to preferential procurement, with budget set-asides. This must be explicitly addressed in the Public Procurement Bill, she said. However, the last time this Bill was mentioned in Parliament was during a briefing by the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer who in April last year said the Bill would go to Cabinet and thereafter put out for public comment.

The CGE surveyed the departments of health, rural development and land reform, basic education and social development. “Gender is an important element in public procurement policy because it can help to ensure equitable access and provide benefits by diversifying the supply chain,” the report reads. The Commission found that the departments generally failed to apply provisions of preferential procurement in both the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (PPPFA) and the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act to expedite gender equality. Of concern is that the CGE found the departments “showed a lack of understanding of these critical transformation provisions”. It was also found that the departments only minimally complied with the Employment Equity Act as some departments are still male dominated in both top and senior management. 

The report found the department of health awarded tenders to few women and black people but with “little significance to reaching gender equality on its procurement practices”. Similarly, the department of rural development and land reform partially complied with provisions in the BBBEE and PPPFA but also with little significance to reaching gender equality on its procurement practices. The department of education, the CGE found, also took no significant measures to “advance gender transformation in relation to procurement practices” at the department. “There is no implementation plans, training and preferential procurement practices that are meant to assist the previously disadvantaged,” the report reads. The CGE flagged the department of education’s procurement profile to be particularly concerning as only 3.65% was spent on companies that are owned by women or where women are shareholders. In the case of the department of social development the CGE found the department partially applied BBBEE provisions but said these efforts were of little significance to reaching gender equality on its procurement practices. 

Programme lead at the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, Rushka Ely, told Parlybeat it is a great concern that government is still not getting this right. “Being the largest procurer of goods and services in the country, government has a responsibility to ensure its expenditure is for social and economic good.” Ely attributed this to a “lack of a mindset shift in public procurement policy and practice”. According to Ely public procurement is still driven by the principle of best value for money. “The upfront cost of goods and services is still the primary deciding factor in public procurement, with BBBEE and other preferential procurement lenses like women empowerment playing a very insignificant role in these is decisions.” She said public procurement needs to be poised as a significant lever for achieving the country’s developmental goals. “This means adopting a definition of ‘best value for money’ that is anchored in the principles of empowerment and sustainability and considers the long-term cost of procurement and long-term benefit of these principles.”


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