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Sue Lani Madsen: Some bureaucracies try to keep finding and funding ways to stay relevant

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a Saturday opinion column for The Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a Saturday opinion column for The Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Bureaucracies never die of natural causes, they have to be killed. Otherwise they keep funding studies to defend their turf. Now, the Washington state Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises has gone on the offensive, seeking support from the state attorney general to overturn the will of the people as expressed by initiative.

When OMWBE was birthed in 1983, its purpose was to administer preferential programs on the basis of race and gender. Then, voters passed the Washington Civil Rights Act in November 1998 with 58 percent support statewide. Commonly called Initiative 200, the expectation from its supporters was OMWBE would be eliminated in the next state budget. Preferential treatment was explicitly banned. No need to issue certificates proving race and gender so vendors could play games. No affirmative action program to administer.

Ten years later the office was still kicking. In an op-ed published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March 2010, I wrote “This week, House Bill 1087 has been introduced to establish and fund a new OMWBE advisory committee to develop a strategic plan to publicize the benefits of certification. A bureaucratic office of questionable purpose will be directed to spend money to study how to better justify its existence.”

House Bill 1087 passed. OMWBE successfully defended its piece of the state budget and grew it. Have to give OMWBE credit for entrepreneurial spirit, now celebrating a 20th anniversary past its logical expiration date. It’s an enviable record for longevity in the small-business world.

Then-Gov. Christine Gregoire had the good sense to veto two out of three parts of HB 1087, pointing out that Section 1, requiring a strategic plan study, wasn’t funded and Section 3 duplicated the existing advisory committee.

All that remained was a mandate to convince small businesses to register for an unnecessary certificate, and collecting data.

OMWBE continued to duplicate or piggyback on outreach available to all small businesses from other agencies. It monitored compliance by public agencies advertising for goods and services with including the words “participation of minority-owned and women-owned business enterprises in this invitation to bid.” And OMWBE refused to die.

Gov. Jay Inslee has taken a more active political approach. In addition to the advisory council, he established the Washington State Business Diversity Subcabinet, directed to increase public works and services contracts with minority-, women- and veteran-owned small businesses with a “comprehensive action plan for sustainable results.”

A fair and nondiscriminatory process for all small business wasn’t enough. The subcabinet contracted with Colette Holt & Associates, a “nationally recognized expert in designing, implementing and defending affirmative action programs.”

But Washington voters rejected the use of affirmative action plans in 1998. Washington’s procurement processes by hard bid and qualifications-based selection have been race and gender neutral for 20 years. There’s nothing to defend. Or nothing yet. The subcabinet requested an opinion from the attorney general’s office. Did Initiative 200 really say “no discrimination against or preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin”?

And the AG’s office said “I-200 does not prohibit all race- and sex-conscious measures” as long as a disparate impact analysis demonstrates outcomes don’t match predicted expectations and a less-qualified candidate or company is not advanced over one more qualified. Reading it reminded me of the serpent rationalizing Eve’s first bite of the apple.

The problem with OMWBE’s statistics in the past 20 years has been its reliance on counting only the women- and minority-owned companies that have bothered to get certified. And then there are companies that could legitimately play with the ownership structure to meet the 51 percent rule, and choose not to.

Colette Holt & Associates did not return calls or emails seeking information on how the study design will overcome these weaknesses. A helpful staff member at OMWBE speculated they will be analyzing other sources of data to make a list of noncertified companies to invite.

You can invite yourself. The study website is if your business would like to provide input. Participation of all small business enterprises is necessary without regard to race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. Just like the Washington Civil Rights Act affirmed in 1998.


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