DOE Justice Week promises change

Oct. 6, 2022
Department of Energy's Justice Week shows gaps in social justice and equality of funding among historically underrepresented groups. But WANDA LAU points toward the ability to measure progress from this baseline.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” the saying goes. With today’s array of technologies tracking everything from individual luminaire output to occupancy and financial transactions, we have no shortage of data to organize and decipher. The undertaking can be complicated, but the findings can be revolutionary — and exactly what is needed to push forward a hunch.

For the past two years, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has embarked on an extensive exercise to ascertain with whom exactly the agency has been doing business. Its call to action was sparked by President Biden’s executive order 13985, which requires the federal government “to pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

The U.S. government is the world’s largest buyer of goods and services, with an annual budget of around $600 billion. Its ability to effect equitable procurement practices and opportunities is enormous. The government can offer a lifeline for companies, particularly small businesses. As one of its agencies, the DOE oversees an annual budget of approximately $82 billion. Beyond purchasing and lots of programming, DOE dollars fund research & development and financial assistance.

Presented during the first of two public events during the DOE’s Justice Week, held Sept. 12–16, the findings from both the agency’s and overall government’s expenditures were striking. Businesses owned by women, people of color, and individuals in rural communities were significantly underrepresented in the federal supplier base and receipts of federal procurement dollars. Chad Maisel, director of racial and economic justice, White House Domestic Policy Council, cited several “startling” statistics. For instance, women-owned businesses make up 20% of the country’s small business, yet they receive less than 5% of federal procurement dollars. Hispanic-owned businesses make up 13% of small businesses, yet they receive 2% of federal procurement dollars.

The DOE’s contract obligations, as presented by Shalanda Baker, director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, are also stark. Between fiscal years 2019 through 2022, women-owned businesses received about 8% of DOE’s spending; Black-owned businesses, under 4%.

“Sometimes the story isn’t good, but by putting it out there, we can begin to do better and make progress,” Maisel said. With this data and willingness for transparency, the federal government has set a goal to spend 15% of contracting dollars with small disadvantaged businesses by 2025. For comparison, though not all numbers were final, Baker said the DOE spent about 2.75% with SDBs in 2022.

Data can be revelatory, shocking, and embarrassing. But it can also be empowering. It lets us say, “This is where we started. This is how far we’ve come. This is where we can expect to go.”

Recent years have seen many companies publish ESG plans. I hope just as many are checking their progress regularly. When we don’t advance as fast as we expected or wanted to, data can help us understand why — and steer us in the right direction the next time around.

Wanda Lau


[email protected]

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WANDA LAU is editorial director of LEDs Magazine and Smart Buildings Technology. She previously served as executive editor of Architect magazine and worked for a decade in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry.

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