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How COVID-19 Elevated Procurement’s Profile in the Public Sector


Procurement professionals aren’t simply buyers. They are first responders who have the best pulse on what’s happening at their agencies and in their communities and the broader marketplace thanks to their close collaboration with front-line colleagues in procurement and private sector networks they have built on the supplier side.

Public sector procurement teams spend all day listening to and understanding the needs of their agencies and translating those needs to private sector companies who can secure the goods, services, and systems to fulfill those needs most effectively. Public procurement professionals have a keen understanding of their agencies’ missions and what it takes to achieve current objectives based on the guidance they receive from subject matter experts on all sides. They are well-versed on policies, procedures and regulations which guide every action they ultimately take.

In other words, procurement professionals are the ones who have the best understanding of what’s feasible and what’s not. That’s why increasingly, they are being called upon by their agency leaders to provide guidance and serve as strategic consultants.

COVID-19 Proved That Procurement Is Much More Than a Process-Driven Support Function

Though procurement was long considered a mere administrative function, many municipal purchasing departments are now serving strategic internal consulting roles within their agencies. COVID-19 response efforts effectively linked procurement with economic development policy implementation and catapulted sourcing strategies into the spotlight.

Now, as a highly visible government activity, procurement is subject to close public scrutiny. It has a leading role in the management of taxpayer money and, in many ways, is responsible for alleviating the impacts of public budget reductions. People want to know how and why certain procurement decisions are made and what’s being done to maintain operational continuity during these challenging times. Though elected officials may still be the ones ultimately held accountable for certain actions or inactions, procurement is often the one pulling the lever based on resource availability on both the demand and supply side.

That’s why procurement professionals are, in essence, moving from being viewed as “gate keepers” to being strategic enablers in the public sector hierarchy. If your team hasn’t experienced this shift yet, it will soon– and you must be prepared to handle this changing dynamic.

Are You Ready to Assume the Role of Trusted Advisor?

Public procurement professionals who want to bring about positive change within their agencies must work with agency leadership to:

  • Replace transaction-oriented processes with value-focused sourcing strategies.
  • Create a culture of collaboration and empowerment— the highly centralized models that have commonly been applied are no longer proving effective in government.
  • Evaluate proposals and award contracts based on “best value” criteria such as total cost of ownership (TCO), maintenance and durability, customer efficiency/effectiveness and proven outcomes—The “low bid” model doesn’t always equate to the highest return on investment.

Procurement must also have a strong understanding of the limits imposed by the Constitution, laws and regulations, and the values and political goals incorporated in them and how the entity functions as a subsystem of larger systems.

COVID-19 served as a catalyst for collaboration across all levels of government with agencies seeking greater expertise and economies of scale. It also forced procurement teams into influential roles outside their respective entities. However, we quickly learned that unless procurement has knowledge of how the government works as a cohesive system it is challenging to execute joint programs.

Therefore, procurement professionals must have a firm grasp on what formal – i.e., legal – and informal interdependencies exist across federal, state and local governments and how these can be used to achieve the most beneficial outcome for their agencies. If you are a local government entity, you must know what the intended political, social, and economical goals are given your proximity to other local jurisdictions or alignment to state government. In addition, national government procurement teams should be able to trace the interdependencies with – and impacts of – the actions of state and local subsystems with the national government as a whole. This has become so much more critical in responding to the pandemic, as procurement practitioners now have no choice but to balance numerous stakeholder interests with political, social, and economic goals.

I realize this may seem like a heavy lift, but the effort public procurement professionals put in to expand their knowledge base will pay off. By becoming a strategic player within any organization, procurement is enabled to better study the problems and opportunities inherent in those organizations. This will provide the insights needed to conduct a full strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis to advise customers and other agency departments on how best to prepare commission or council-level recommendations on policies and programs. It will also directly assist in the implementation of these recommendations when needed.

Just remember that the value of an expanded, strategic role, is most significantly realized when procurement can drive the following changes within its own strategic operating framework:

  • More technology-driven small dollar purchasing (p-card and online ordering).
  • Full adoption of e-procurement technology for internal process management and procedural execution (remember, transparency and accountability are now mission-critical given procurement’s high-profile role).
  • A greater understanding of complex contract requirements and increased efforts to manage risk potential.
  • Standardized Electronic cataloging.
  • A greater understanding of global/international commerce.

You’re Sitting at the Table with Other Strategic Thought Leaders…Now What?

Once procurement departments become recognized within agencies as mission facilitators, and our contributions to broad organizational goals are clearly defined, the next step is to establish procurement as independent entities providing valuable insight and input at the strategic planning table. Procurement needs to participate in the formulation of polices and procedures involving the proper expenditures of agency funds. Some of these procedures may require immediate adjustments in existing principles, policies or codes that are not current best practice as recognized and established by NIGP. 

Procurement should become the focus point between agency suppliers, end-user departments (“the customer”), the taxpayer, and government as a whole. Each group attempts to champion its own interests by trying to influence procurement officials and functions. However, procurement must not waiver from its primary and unbiased role of service, support and contribution to the organization and its strategic mission. 

Procurement is responsible for maintaining a system of quality and integrity for every department in the agency.  As such, our commitment to fair and equal oversight of proper procedures, consistent with agency standards and best practices must be beyond reproach. No agency employee or department should feel that procurement favors one department or division over any other. Rather, we procurement should be trusted by all to act with neutrality and serve the best interests of the agency and the community it serves.  

It has taken a long time and a great deal of effort for procurement to be accepted as a strategic partner. The longevity of this role will be determined solely by what we do next. Let’s work together to ensure we have the right tools in place to maintain complete visibility, transparency and accountability at all times so that our recommendations are solid and our collaborative efforts effective in achieving each agencies’ individual goals.

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The NIGP Consulting Program provides procurement consulting services, including Strategic Procurement Assessments, Staff and Organizational Assessments, Staff Augmentation, Agency Benchmarking, Policy Development, Contract Administration Analysis, pCard and Contract Auditing, as well as numerous other service areas.  NIGP Consulting provides expert procurement consulting services through the contracted management firm, Periscope Holdings, LLC.  At Periscope, a team of independent, diverse and highly experienced consultants and subject matter experts in the public procurement industry.  For further information on the NIGP Consulting Program, please visit the NIGP website or contact Marcheta Gillespie, NIGP Consulting Program Manager, at mgillespie@periscope.com.

 

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