PHOTO: Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird at Tarbells on Dunsmuir Avenue
Around the world, the criteria for how to spend public money has shifted toward achieving a community’s social and economic values, in addition to getting the best value. The Village of Cumberland is leading the way for Canada, along with Comox resident Sandra Hamilton
Comox Valley governments spend more than $100 million every year to purchase goods and services. The criteria for deciding from whom to make those purchases has been historically based on the most fiscally responsible option.
But in other parts of the world that way of thinking has shifted toward spending taxpayers’ dollars more strategically. Specifically, to not only get the best value, but to also provide social benefits.
It’s a concept called social procurement, using dollars the government was going to spend anyway to drive social change and economic development.
Canada has lagged the rest of the world in adopting social procurement, but not the Village of Cumberland.
Cumberland is the first Canadian municipality to incorporate a social procurement framework into its purchasing policy.
And it’s the first Canadian government body to receive certification from Buy Social Canada, an organization devoted to “bringing socially driven purchasers and social enterprise suppliers together … to generate social benefits to communities across the country.”
The village can already point to several community improvements directly attributable to social procurement. And Cumberland’s success has reverberated up and down Vancouver Island, across the province and into eastern Canada.
But for Cumberland Financial Officer Michelle Mason the blessings of leading a nation have come with a bit of a burden. Since the Village Council adopted social procurement in November of 2016, she has been inundated with calls from other B.C. and Canadian cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, seeking information about the policy.
“Most often, the first question is: What is this?” she said.
To answer that question, Mason has also travelled widely around the province making presentations about Cumberland’s nation-leading policy as more communities start to realize the benefits of social procurement. She recently addressed the annual convention of the B.C. Government Financial Officers Association.
The importance of Mason’s role in educating other municipalities about social procurement has inspired a group of Island mayors to envision a Social Procurement Hub that would take her work to the next level.
FURTHER READING: Island mayors work together to create Community Benefit Hub
Cumberland leading Canada
While living in Scotland in 2012/2013, Cumberland Councillor Jesse Kelter observed the Scottish government wrestle with the idea of leveraging public spending to create community benefits. She was there with her husband, who had a temporary work assignment, and her children.
She remembers reading the newspapers about the debate and thinking, “this is about building better relationships with our suppliers, making it more than just a business transaction about price,” she said. “It’s about building a better community together.”
Her understanding of how social procurement could work for local government came from a conversation she had at a Christmas party with Sandra Hamilton.
After Kelter was elected to public office in the fall of 2014, she posed the idea of adding social values into the village’s purchasing policy during the council’s 2015 Future Priorities session.
“It was an easy sell to council,” she remembers. “And staff were very receptive.”
Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird was on board immediately. She had taken a similar idea to an unreceptive council in 2011 .
It took another year and some outside expert help from Comox resident Sandra Hamilton to help draft Canada’s first social procurement framework, but it all came together when the village updated its purchasing policy in November of 2016.
“Sandra played an initial role early in the development of her social consulting business,” Baird said. “And we were fortunate staff was so supportive. It took all of us coming together to make it happen.”
Hamilton, a United Kingdom native now living in Comox, is Canada’s first social MBA and a public sector social procurement consultant working with all three levels of government.
Scotland has since become the world’s first country to make social procurement a law.
What is social procurement?
The Village of Cumberland has a special page on its website devoted to its social procurement policy, where it introduces the concept this way:
“Social procurement leverages the public procurement process for goods and services, to advance positive economic, workforce, and social development outcomes. Social procurement blends financial and social considerations in public sector purchasing ….”
That’s a lot of words, but the rationale is simple: provide social value for the money a government spends. It’s an invitation for suppliers to advance a community’s social and economic goals through the tendering and procurement process.
FURTHER READING: Village of Cumberland’s social procurement website page
Mayor Baird puts it more directly.
“Our major suppliers are not from Cumberland, so our village doesn’t benefit from the volunteering, sponsorships and all the other wonderful community services they donate in their hometowns,” she said. “So what we’re doing is leveraging our spending to receive some of that community benefit.”
How it works in practice
When evaluating bids for a Village of Cumberland contract, staff and elected officials consider the usual criteria of quality, price and environmental issues, but now add a fourth component: social.
Bidders must meet certain social values determined by the Village Council. They include a living wage evaluation and apprenticeship opportunities for residents of the village who are at-risk youth, aboriginal people, women, newcomers to Canada or retiring veterans and people transitioning into new careers.
Community Benefit Clauses (CBCs) valued at between 5 percent to 15 percent of the total contract may also be added. You can read the list of goals that a CBC should address here.
When the local J.R. Edgett company won the contract for separating wastewater and stormwater pipes along Dunsmuir Avenue, it discussed possible CBCs with village staff.
At the time, the village was trying to build a BMX bike jump park next to its skate park. Edgett offered to utilize anticipated down time of equipment and labor already onsite for the pipeline project to provide the fill and finish the jump park.
When Edgett was also hired to build a new bike lane for mountain bikers to travel safely from the Cumberland Recreation Institute parking lot down to the main entrance into the MTB trails, they also contributed to the building of trails in the Cumberland Community Forest.
Councillor Kelter and CFO Mason point out that the policy is not prescriptive to suppliers. They are allowed autonomy to be creative about offering a community benefit, but must meet at least two goals to be considered.
“It’s like we say, here are our goals, tell us how you can help us achieve some them without affecting your price,” Mason said. “Vendors know their business better than we do, and they’re creative.”
Mason said sometimes a company needs temporary employees for the job, so they offer to hire qualified Cumberland residents. Or, the company is from Vancouver and they have to rent apartments for their workers, so they get credit for what they’re already doing.
Benefits for community and contractors
Council members and staff worried that fewer vendors would bid on Cumberland projects after the social procurement policy was adopted. It turned out to be a needless worry.
The village’s last tender for its new water supply UV treatment plant attracted eight bidders, considered a healthy number by Operations Manager Rob Crisfield.
The main concern expressed by the construction industry is for consistency in the Request for Proposal process. Adding a social component to the RFP means a five to 10 page document, which can be daunting to suppliers.
The Island Social Procurement Hub would address this issue, and Financial Officier Mason has been working on creating competitive bidding templates to make it easier on vendors.
But Mayor Baird says social procurement policies are really protections for local contractors against globalization.
“All governments are open to global bids when the spendf reaches a certain dollar level,” she said. “But what will a vendor from far away do for our community?”
Baird speculates that social procurement policies have spread so quickly throughout Europe and Australia because it’s a “means of protecting our own workers.”
Before helping Cumberland write its policy, Sandra Hamilton worked as the director of marketing for The Vancouver Sun, and owned and published BC Woman Magazine.
But when she later acted as the business manager for John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, her mind was opened to the potential for social procurement. She was engaged in the Vancouver Olympics effort to include social criteria into its purchasing policies.
“For example, we awarded the floral contract to a company that offered to train inmates at the Women’s Transition Society Prison as florists during their contract period,” Hamilton said. “Half of them are still working as florists today.”
That’s when it clicked for her. Why not add social values into all taxpayer contracts, and align procurement with each government body’s policy objectives?
Hamilton has since earned the nation’s first social MBA and has helped draft both B.C.’s (Cumberland) and Alberta’s (Fort McMurray) first social procurement policies.
FURTHER READING: Sandra Hamilton’s website
She now speaks across the country, and is recognized as one of the nation’s leading social procurement experts. She was Canada’s nominee to speak about social procurement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) symposium in Geneva last February. In March she spoke on the topic at the Canadian Construction Conference in Mexico.
On a local level, Hamilton was the project lead for the FEED initiative through North Island College to get food grown by Comox Valley farmers into local institutions, such as the Comox Valley Hospital.
“Tax dollars drive our economy and shapes out communities,” she said. “But governments are still procuring and buying like they did 30-40 years ago — that’s the change I’m driving for.”
The City of Victoria, Town of Qualicum Beach and City of Campbell River are working together on a pilot project to design and develop a standardized approach to adding social value into infrastructure projects.
The Social Procurement Hub will soon solicit for an employee to travel the province sharing information from Cumberland and other governments and helping municipal governments to establish their own policies.
FURTHER READING: The United Nations global review of sustainable public procurement