HBCUs Could Be One Key to Improving Equity in Federal Contracting and Technology
From expanding contracting opportunities for small, disadvantaged businesses to building out a more diverse federal workforce, federal agencies are increasingly aiming to partner with minority-serving institutions to ensure their equity goals are effective.
Federal agencies are increasingly looking to partner with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions—a move that could boost equity across contracting, acquisitions and the tech workforce. But success lies in implementation.
The federal government's first-ever set of equity action plans released in April featured over 300 actions and strategies to address issues around diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. The plans are an outgrowth of a 2021 executive order.
Many of the plans involve working with HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) and other minority-serving institutions as key strategic partners to shift the focus on equity from goals to measurable results—all while creating long-term, generational impacts on those communities.
For example, the Defense Department has been partnering with Black colleges and universities for years, and its equity plan, like that of other federal departments and agencies, stresses building relationships with minority serving institutions to bolster the defense workforce and meet research needs.
"I think our national security is stronger, our ability to defend and protect the interests of the United States – whether it's through the Department of Defense and our military and civilian personnel or any other federal agency – is enhanced by diversity," Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has championed efforts to increase these partnerships, told FCW.
But plans and statements only go so far.
"So now, the real challenge ahead is to implement because plans sitting on a shelf, strategies that are discussed but not acted on, really don't amount to much. So I think it's going to be important that the department implement its equity action plan. And it'll be important that Congress provides oversight, continued oversight, to ensure that they do."
Achieving generational commitments to equity with the help of HBCUs
Several agencies detailed strategic investments in HBCUs as part of their equity plans, including the Defense Department, which has been working on improving its equity and inclusion efforts, particularly when it comes to tech research. According to its equity plan, the Pentagon wants more partnerships with HBCUs and minority-serving institutions to fulfill tech workforce needs, saying "a more diverse AI workforce will likely increase our ability to anticipate potential inequities (or recognize any that begin to emerge) and proactively mitigate them." That includes barriers to entering the STEM workforce.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required the Defense Department to commission a study with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to evaluate best ways to build HBCUs' capacity to compete for research and development grants and other contracts.
DOD's research funding to HBCUs has increased in recent years from $72.5 million in fiscal 2019 to $102 million in fiscal 2022. DOD spent $6.65 billion on research expenditures in 2019, according to the National Academies' report.
But it's not just a matter of increasing funding for contracts as there will likely need to be long-term institutional support of at least 10 years to improve facilities, business IT, and personnel needs, according to the National Academies’ recommendations.
"Because what we've learned is that while the DOD invests very little in our HBCUs, part of the problem is that HBCUs don't necessarily have the capacity to take on a great deal more. So how do you enhance the capacity?" Brown said. "Is it research facilities that need to be enhanced? Is it better knowledge and understanding of how to submit an effective grant application? Is it additional faculty that's needed?"
Despite capacity challenges, the report concluded there are HBCUs and minority serving institutions that can and have demonstrated the ability and interest to do defense research and that additional investments could make them even more effective, such as Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, which has a robust drones and robotics program.
Partnerships with HBCUs could also help attract and retain talent from diverse backgrounds. Brown highlighted how Morgan State University in Baltimore has used an existing DOD program designed to encourage large defense contractors to partner with minority-led subcontractors to diversify the defense talent pool.
"As one of the largest federal STEM funding agencies and employers, DOD plays an essential role in the U.S. science and technology ecosystem and can greatly expand opportunities to diversify the STEM workforce," Eugene DeLoatch, chair of committee that produced the National Academies' report, said in a statement to FCW.
He added: "It is time to move from well-intentioned statements to actionable outcomes."
The report shows that from fiscal years 2010 to 2020 showed HBCUs receiving a disproportionately smaller amount of research and discovery funding from the Defense Department compared to non-minority serving institutions. The committee recommended a doubling of targeted funding from fiscal year 2020, as well as increased and consistent collaboration with HBCUs, TCUs and other minority serving institutions to enhance their defense research capacities.
Brown said the study's results would be a "real test of the department's commitment" depending on how it "reacts to the recommendations and whether they're willing to adopt the findings." And in addition to reviewing the report, he expects to bring the issue to Congressional Black Caucus members and House defense committee leadership to stress HBCU partnerships with the Defense Department as a priority for this year's authorization bill.
Partnerships in action
The U.S. Space Force recently teamed with Howard University in Washington, D.C. as part of its University Partnership Program to help build a pipeline for tech talent through internship, scholarship, and research opportunities. The Defense Department also awarded Howard University $7.5 million to launch an AI center of excellence in 2020.
The Labor Department will partner with the Office of Personnel Management while collaborating with HBCUs and other community partners to launch a series of new apprenticeship programs aiming to provide more pathways into federal service.
The Commerce Department's equity action plans included $268 million in grant funding to HBCUs and others through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) as part of a new pilot program called Connecting Minority Communities.
The program will fund the purchasing of broadband internet access service and help institutions operate minority business enterprises, hire IT personnel and more. In a press release, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the program "will deliver immediate benefits" to traditionally underserved communities "while informing the larger efforts planned under President Biden's American Jobs Plan."
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) equity plans call for increased student participation across HBCUs in industry internships through the "Enhancing Diversity in Manufacturing" competitive award, which aims to place 16 interns across four Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers by its second year.
The Small Business Administration said it plans to take an "all-hands approach" to strengthen the lines of communication with underserved communities, onboarding new Small Business Development Center service centers to support historically underserved communities while requiring those centers to enhance collaboration with minority-serving institutions.
The new and expanded partnerships with HBCUs and other institutions are a "welcome change" for the federal contracting community, according to Larry Allen, former president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.
"It is great to get new blood and new ideas into government contracting," Allen told FCW. "With a lot of smaller businesses leaving the market, we need a steady influx of firms and institutions that have new ideas and new ways of looking at old problems."
Data from 2003 to the present shows the agency struggling to extend those grants and opportunities to underserved communities and HBCUs: only one of the 50 different institutions to receive a research grant during the period through SSA was an HBCU. Meanwhile, the agency awarded a single contract for just over $1 million to one SDB while awarding a total of nearly $369 million in research contracts to 10 organizations during that same time period.
The plans are a good start towards identifying barriers preventing equity throughout the federal government and its services, according to former NASA CIO Linda Cureton.
"It is my hope that through the identification of barriers, there are results-oriented steps taken to mitigate them," she told FCW. "At first glance, I didn't feel that the step was significant, however, considering how we regressed during the last administration, the goals are impactful."
Biden's executive order directing agencies to develop their equity action plans also revoked former President Donald Trump's executive action on "Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping," which restricted federal contractors from implementing certain workforce diversity initiatives and training programs.
"It was a bad order," she added. "I can't say it had unintended consequences because I think the consequences were very much intended."
Cureton noted how some agencies possibly overlooked how small businesses and other organizations can be incentivized to aid in ongoing equity efforts, like providing positive evaluation of offerers partnering with HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
Advancing equity with direct investments in disadvantaged communities
Many of the agencies, including the Agriculture Department, also noted how strategic collaboration with SDBs, disadvantaged communities and the procurement community will be required to have their intended impacts on barriers to equity in federal contracting and other areas.
The Department of Agriculture plans to roll out a 21.5% contracting goal for SDBs while reforming its acquisition planning process. SBA says it plans to streamline program applications and integrate data through improved technology, while increasing access to capital for minority-owned businesses.
Meanwhile, the General Services Administration says it will expand resources like its Forecast of Contracting Opportunities Tool to help SDBs evaluate federal marketplace opportunities. GSA also recently launched Buy.GSA.Gov, a simplified tool to help newcomers, small businesses and others receive contracting opportunities with the federal government–an effort the agency said was the result of collaboration with multiple agencies and vendors.
In order to help determine successes and failures, Biden also established an Equitable Data Working Group, which will aim to build accountability into agencies' equity plans through data collection and reporting. The administration said more details about the new working group and its initial recommendations will be announced in the coming weeks.
Editor's note: This article was updated May 6 to clarify the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering is a joint program.