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Hennepin County will again be part of a state-led examination of government contracting to see if county officials' efforts have helped level the playing field for businesses owned by women and people of color.

When county leaders last looked in 2017, a disparity study found businesses owned by women and people of color won county contracts half as often as researchers expected. The probe looked at five years of county contracts, between 2011 and 2016, worth $1.4 billion.

Michael Rosenfeld, from the county's contracting and purchasing department, said the results of the previous examination led the county leadership to implement changes in 2018 to ensure more diversity in the ownership of firms awarded contracts.

Changes included giving narrow consideration to the race and gender of business ownership for the first time when awarding county contracts. Previously, the county had a race and gender-neutral contracting program.

Rosenfeld said the modifications "generated unprecedented levels of participation" by firms owned by women and people of color for construction and professional service contracts.

The new study, which will also look at five years of contracts, will help county officials determine if the changes worked and should remain in place or be modified. Federal law requires governments to prove past disparities in order to use race-conscious contracting programs.

Commissioner Angela Conley noted the county's past "gross underutilization" of firms owned by women and people of color during an April 2 committee meeting when the County Board discussed participating in the new study. The board officially approved joining the study Tuesday.

"I'm happy to see that we continue to do this," Conley said, adding that she hopes to see strong evidence that disparities are being reversed.

The latest study will be led by the state and cost the county $32,660; the results expected in 2025. Fourteen other government entities, including several state departments; the University of Minnesota; St. Paul and Minneapolis; and Hennepin Healthcare System are also participating.

County Administrator David Hough noted the county first looked at disparities in government contracting in 1995. Keen Independent Research is the contractor for the upcoming study, as well as for the previous two.

"We are proud of the heritage and history here and we are building on it," Hough said.

Keen identified a variety of reasons for disparities in government contracting. Among them: Businesses owned by women and people of color or more likely to be small, their leaders may not be as familiar with the bidding process and they might not have the financial backing needed to meet some government requirements.