Procurement
October 23, 2012

Are these shoes really made for walking?

Preparing a detailed procurement manual for a client is like trying to write how to tie shoelaces – it’s not easy.

While I was writing one of those manuals, an article about contracting for professional services appeared in the newspaper. Not being privy to the details, I will not discuss the article’s sub tones of longstanding malfeasance; I will not even cite the article to avoid further spreading of what could be unfair innuendo. That’s a shame, though, because the writer nonetheless  did a good job of raising some important issues relating to contracting for professional services.

One of those issues arose from a quotation from a former public servant, who said in part: “I’ve been on both sides of this divide.” A crucial concern that is often overlooked: there are two sides to every story.

Although that person was referring to the divide between buyer and seller and the complexities of designing a procurement that will attract the right number of quality bidders, the divide also appears in a different form within a buying organization.

For public servants buying professional services it is all too obvious. Trying to meet numerous and often-conflicting objectives is high risk.

It is particularly challenging when you need a consultant, and you already have one that you have confidence in on site. How do you trade off the benefits of a known quantity in terms of producing results against the opportunity to find someone who will do even better (or as well, at lower cost); a fast solution with a likely result against a longer and “cleaner” one of uncertain outcome; or tangible program delivery results against the government’s commitment to fair, open and transparent actions?

Balancing any of those pairings is difficult; when all apply to any given situation the potential for disaster is all too apparent. The fact is, the way ahead is not always clear.

How, then, to tell people how to tie shoelaces? My manual is not finished yet; this article will help me find its final form. Here is what I think it will say.

First, clearly hammer out the ethical commitments of the organization. Make sure everyone knows and commits to what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Prove those values every day, by the actions of the most visible people (not just the most senior) in the organization. Glowing statements soon turn to dust when staff see that they shine on paper but not in reality.

Then, make sure that the priorities of the organization are clear. Giving people ten priorities is giving them none. In particular, make sure that staff know what they are expected to do when faced with choices, both good or bad: which is the clear organizational path?

Back that up by very visible management commitment. Staff need to know that when they have acted ethically to drive toward the priority, they will not later be disowned by management if something goes wrong.

Listen to Mike Holmes. Take the training of staff beyond the “what and how” to the “why.” We tell procurement people that when “buying” they should specify results to be achieved rather than how the consultant/service provider is to deliver. The goal is to increase competition and generate innovation, but then we tend to deny government staff the same flexibility. Without clear priorities and the strong ethical foundation referenced already, staff will naturally gravitate to the rules. On the other hand, tell them the “why” within the strong framework of real ethics and priorities and they should be able to achieve more.

Renew and revitalize the old saying “speak truth to power.” It too often seems that the people upstairs only want to hear the good news; the possible negative consequences of decisions or actions are forcibly downplayed if not eliminated entirely. Bad decisions based on bad information are almost inevitable when you take away the need to present all sides of a situation, accurately and in balance.

Interestingly, my directions above are not about tying shoelaces. But they are about teaching people about shoes – what they are and when to wear which style. Give people the right context and, as described, they will get it right by themselves.

Except, of course, if they are told that shoes are not meant for walking but rather to look good.

John Read provides procurement consulting services to public sector clients. He served for almost 15 years in the Public Works procurement arena.

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