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Public sector procurement professionals – strategic contributors, not technocrats?

Tuesday March 18th, 2014

Having recently judged entries for the National Government Opportunities (GO) Excellence in Public Procurement Awards 2014/15 (to be presented in Birmingham this tomorrow evening, 19 March), I realise that there are some exciting initiatives and some great professionals in the UK public procurement service.

Sadly, I also know from direct and indirect experience and reports that there are too many examples of public procurement being trapped in an outdated, compliance-focused and over-technocratic mindset.

Across the public sector, it’s time for procurement professionals to step up and make their mark; demonstrate a strategic contribution; be seen as a corporate resource (and not solely as ‘buyers’); and earn a place of influence with top executive boards.

John Tizard

John Tizard

Understandably (and frankly, in my view, not before time), the public sector is increasingly seeking to use its procurement spend to deliver its wider social objectives and to secure social money, economic growth, public value and value for money. It is doing this against a backdrop of the most severe financial pressures with substantial cuts (and, it must be noted, over half of the savings so far required by the Government’s austerity programme have yet to be enacted). This demands an unprecedented response from the procurement profession, which must be ready to secure sustainable commercial contracts at the same time as securing these wider goals. The profession must also be willing to explain what is possible and what is not; and to be ready to challenge unrealistic demands and expectations from politicians and senior colleagues – but in a constructive rather than an obstructive way.

Public procurement professionals also have to gain the confidence of suppliers and understand their commercial drivers, capabilities and track record. They have to be able to make objective judgements of suppliers’ ethical approaches to issues such as employment practices, supply chain management, remuneration, governance and tax. And they must be able to manage markets, encourage new entrants and support SMEs and other new ventures, be they voluntary, community and/or mutual.

There is significant pressure to negotiate low-cost contracts and to renegotiate existing contracts to save money and/or reflect new circumstances. The procurement professional has to be able to undertake such tasks but equally must ensure that her or his political and managerial bosses and colleagues understand the potential risks and implications for sustainable quality and wider public policy objectives.

The role and contribution of the public sector procurement executive is important and is changing. These days, it has to be far more than just the traditional ‘head of purchasing’. Anecdotally, however, this is all too often not the case. Far too many heads of procurement fail to make their own case; get sidelined by ‘commissioners’ and senior policy and operational colleagues; and revert to the comfort of the traditional role of an unadventurous and risk-averse bureaucrat. The latter is simply not sustainable for the modern profession – a more strategic approach is both necessary and essential.  

There was evidence even in some of the GO Excellence Awards submissions that too many in the profession still cannot recognise excellence and what should be regarded as their strategic contribution to their organisations and the public. This is disappointing and identifies a major challenge for the profession and leaders across the wider public sector. And the answer is not to recruit or import more people from the business sector, who may offer some expertise but may equally not understand the nuances, values and objectives of the public sector.

Government is seeking to improve public procurement capacity and build its professional status, and of course this is to be welcomed. However, it is important that individual departments, agencies and authorities retain their own distinctive approach, aligning procurement with their own specific cultures and objectives. It is also important that Government initiatives do not conflate public service reform simply with better procurement and outsourcing, or procurement with commissioning. Procurement is merely one of many means of implementing commissioning decisions. Procurement executives must work closely with their commissioning colleagues but in complementary, not interchangeable roles.

Given all of the above, what does the profession have to offer? How does a public sector chief executive or senior executive or political leader recognise a high-calibre strategic procurement professional and her or his service?

I suggest that there are five key attributes:

  • ·         an understanding of the wider social, economic and environmental goals, and a commitment to delivering these through procurement
  • ·         commercial and risk management acumen with a penchant for innovation and proposing solutions – not barriers
  • ·         an ability to contribute to corporate debates and problem resolution; and to be recognised as a corporate team player
  • ·         an ability to say ‘no’ and to challenge senior colleagues, and if necessary politicians (but only when in the corporate interest, because what is being asked for is not possible or would have unintended consequences, and not for some petty ‘compliance’ excuse – which, in the long run, risks career suicide and fails the public); and to propose solutions
  • ·         a comprehensive knowledge of and network across the voluntary, social and business sector supply communities

To justify their role and to maximise their contribution, the public sector procurement executive has to demonstrate beyond doubt that they are vital to the public sector. And above all, they have to show through their actions that they are valuable strategic contributors – and not bureaucratic, narrow-minded technocrats.

This year’s GO Excellence in Public Procurement Awards show what can be done. Others must follow, but all in the public procurement profession must do more.


John Tizard
Twitter: @johntizard
Linked In: John Tizard


** Gov Opps training partner, PASS (Procurement Advice & Support Service) runs training events for both the public and private sector. These include the New EU Directives and an Introduction to Public Procurement. Click here for more info:

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