Ten years ago I was a member of the Parliamentary Secretary’s Task Force, Government-Wide Review of Procurement, looking into ways to make our federal procurement “better.” Moving house recently, I found my copy of the Final Report, submitted in January 2005.
The Task Force was established to review federal procurement and recommend improvements. More specific areas for consideration included reducing the cost of what the government buys and the procurement function itself; increasing the speed of transactions; increasing effectiveness of procurement in supporting government priorities; and ensuring strong ethical foundations, effective checks and balances, and strong financial management to ensure value government-wide.
It is interesting – one can easily say disheartening – to see how often this process of trying to build a better mousetrap comes back to re-visit, if not haunt, us. The Task Force noted that it was the then-latest in a series of studies – it referenced six dating back to 1962. There is a strong temptation to wonder whether the time and effort spent produced any value, let alone best value, for the government and taxpayers.
One of the Task Force recommendations was that the government should consider reviewing its existing procurement dispute resolution mechanism, at the time pretty well limited to the Canadian International Trade Tribunal (CITT), which has jurisdiction only over complaints about procurements subject to the various trade agreements. The Task Force noted that there should be a robust government-wide approach to contract management, supplier performance and dispute resolution.
That recommendation was made in January 2005 to a Liberal government and then in January 2006 a federal election brought in the Conservatives. In April 2006, the Conservatives tabled the Federal Accountability Act, which created the new Procurement Ombudsman with a broad range of practical-based responsibilities relating to not only complaints about procurement processes, but also contract management and contract administration. It certainly looks like cause and effect.
Now, clearly not everything the Task Force recommended was implemented. Actually little was. There was a clash of purposes. The Task Force was created to find ways to improve procurement, but as it worked the government went into crash mode to find major savings across its operations. Better procurement, therefore, became cheaper procurement: anything that would not immediately produce savings was doomed.
Many of the recommendations would have put PWGSC into a position of greater influence and power. There were few departments willing to give up what little procurement authority they had to Public Works and Government Services (PWGSC).
Then, although the Task Force consulted widely across the government, most such exercises are not received particularly well. Those “consulted” do not in the long-term feel that they really have an input: they probably do not have a full understanding of what the recommendations are and why they are made, and they do not feel any ownership of the results. No knowledge, no understanding, no buy-in means no success.
Why is this relevant? PWGSC announced some months ago a new procurement approach – Smart Procurement. According to the PWGSC website, Smart Procurement is an approach that is quite different to what the government is accustomed to. It is looking for better understanding, innovation and more competition. It seeks to mitigate risks and ensure effective governance and objectivity. It also promises to use procurement as an engine for economic development.
Using different words, perhaps, this sounds a lot like the Task Force: déjà vu. It also sounds a lot like the Treasury Board’s contracting policy objectives – déjà vu again. You will understand my hesitation to applaud, but hope springs eternal. If at first you don’t succeed…
In its common service role, if PWGSC sneezes the government catches a cold: Smart Procurement will ripple across the public service. If departments are not ready for those changes, though, the effect is more likely to be a tsunami of difficulty, discontent and disappointment.
For Smart Procurement to work to maximum effect, procurement people across the government need to be informed, understand, and buy in. You simply cannot expect your staff to “know” and be able to use the new approaches effectively. Implementing new and different requires appropriate training.
At the Canadian Institute for Procurement and Planning annual workshop being held in Ottawa this May, there will be many speakers ready to explain and discuss Smart Procurement, its operations and its benefits. Departments that do not send their procurement people are shortsightedly courting disaster.
See you there? http://www.cipmm-icagm.ca/en/events/national-workshop