After more than 30 columns for this magazine, it is time for me to bid farewell. My consulting days are over, and without day-to-day contact with the procurement community I can no longer be topical.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share with you – my procurement colleagues, and hopefully with the clients that you serve – my thoughts and observations on a wide range of topics. Some were procurement-related. But in others I tried to extend my experience into a broader arena. When I wrote in March about the approval chain for documents and files, I was writing about the frustrations I have experienced and seen in moving procurement actions forward, but recalling the many times that I encountered the same situations in my life before procurement.
It took me more than 20 years in the public service to arrive in the procurement arena. One lesson I learned is that the crux of effective procurement is making sure that procurement professionals know what it is like to be in line operations: you cannot buy well if you do not understand both why you are doing it, and what the consequences will be if you succeed or fail.
Equally, though, the clients of procurement – the people who need to buy “something” in order to do their jobs – need to have a reasonable understanding of what the procurement world is all about. No one has ever said procurement is simple, and it seems to grow more complex every day.
I used to get a perverse thrill during my training sessions for operational managers when I told them that the purpose of procurement was not to get them what they need, but rather to achieve government objectives and results like competition, supplier access, and economic development. Read the Contracting Policy and count them – there are at least eight.
If you think about it a bit, you can even say that some procurement – the high value stuff that is covered by trade agreements – is about demonstrating that we are a country that meets our international commitments. It is about procurement, certainly, but it is also about who we are.
Lofty thoughts, but I wanted this column to be more down to earth and pragmatic. As I looked back over my articles, one theme stood out as worthy of repeating – the need for simplicity. Actually, I came to it looking at a non-procurement issue: the competency-based approach to employee performance management that is now in place.
Remember I talked above about the eight-plus objectives of government procurement? I looked at a competency profile on the Treasury Board Secretariat website (it was an FI-02 generic) and found 52 – yes, 52 – indicators. My goodness, I am glad that I left the public service when I did!
My first thought was whether this approach contributes to the growing problem of employee mental health challenges with which the government is trying to cope. My second was that I would bet that when employee performance appraisals are actually carried out, and perhaps promotion decisions made, probably less than a dozen of those indicators are the actual drivers of the decisions. There is likely a chasm between what is published and what is really useful.
The same applies to procurement, now so often characterized by reams of paper for the smallest transactions, the content of which is probably – for any individual file – largely superfluous, probably not read or understood by the intended audiences, and with every word offering the potential for a dispute between buyer and seller
One of these days some brave soul is going to succeed in reducing the complexity of our tax system. That achieved, perhaps attention can move to procurement. Even in retirement, I will watch with interest.
As I sat down this last time to set words to paper, a small part of me wanted to see yet another procurement scandal or failure so that I could rail once again against the system. It didn’t happen, and that is a good thing. Focusing on failure would demean the efforts of so many of my procurement colleagues, who day after day make sure that the business of government continues.
For every failure – whether it hits the media or not – there are thousands of successes. That is a tribute to the professionalism and devotion of the procurement community. I am proud to have been a part of your world.
Editor’s Note: In the print version of this article, an explanatory subhead was added: “Farewell to brothers in procurement arms.” While the intent was a general “thank you” to the entire procurement community, the term “brothers” in no way reflects the broader professional community with whom John Read worked. CGE regrets the error and any misunderstanding.