The use of public procurement to achieve social outcomes is widespread, but detailed information about how it operates is often sketchy and difficult to find. This article is essentially a mapping exercise, describing the history and current use of government contracting as a tool of social regulation, what the author calls the issue of ‘linkage’. The article considers the popularity of linkage in the 19th century in Europe and North America, particularly in dealing with issues of labour standards and unemployment. The use of linkage expanded during the 20th century, initially to include the provision of employment opportunities to disabled workers. During and after World War II, the use of linkage became particularly important in the United States in addressing racial equality, in the requirements for non-discrimination in contracts, and in affirmative action and set-asides for minority businesses.
Subsequently, the role of procurement spread both in its geographical coverage and in the subject areas of social policy that it was used to promote. The article considers examples of the use of procurement to promote equality on the basis of ethnicity and gender drawn from Malaysia, South Africa, Canada, and the European Community. More recently, procurement has been used as an instrument to promote human rights transnationally, also by international organizations such as the International Labour Organisation. The article includes some reflections on the relationship between ‘green’ procurement, ‘social’ procurement, and sustainable development, and recent attempts to develop the concept of ‘sustainable procurement.