Procurement
June 18, 2013

Is professional development suffering from austerity?

The premier learning experience for federal procurement people, the annual Workshop of the Canadian Institute for Procurement and Materiel Management (CIPPM) offers to the public service specific training in individual procurement subjects and broader exposure to more general topics through presentations by knowledgeable practitioners and executives.

It’s held in Ottawa, meaning public servants based in Ottawa do not have to pay travel and accommodation expenses; the only time away from the office is the two or three days actually in the workshop. Yet attendance has been falling. The May 2013 workshop welcomed participants from about 50 organizations, but there are more than 100 federal organizations. Where once there were 700 attendees, there were 400 this year from a public service of 260,000. Where were the rest? Suffering under austerity?

In my time the almost automatic response to austerity was to cut training. Cutting training saves money easily – it seems a no-brainer. Does this approach reflect the thought process of some who plan and pay for training: get brownie points now for expenditure reduction, and what do they care if the place falls apart after they have been promoted out?

A well-executed procurement is inevitably cheaper than a poor one that has to be extensively modified or cancelled and re-done. “Pay me now, or pay me later,” applies directly to procurement by people who do not know. They cannot apply to any procurement activity in-depth knowledge of the procurement business, or how that activity fits into and relates to the business needs and policy priorities of the government. Their outcomes are almost certainly “results” that give less than full value using approaches open to improvement.

Not long ago I was training operational staff in a department, and a procurement officer in attendance took me to task for telling the participants that the Government Contracts Regulations permit sole-source contracting for requirements of less than $25,000, since that department’s internal limit was $10,000.

Hide the GCRs? In effect the suggestion was that procurement would somehow be “better” if those operational managers were operating with less than complete information. Is it possible that departments have unconsciously accepted this perspective: full information and knowledge could be – perhaps is – a dangerous thing?

Less than a month after the Auditor General noted continuing problems with the protection of Canada’s physical and knowledge assets caused by current approaches to security-clearing contractors, thousands of public servants missed the opportunity at CIPPM to learn about ensuring that effective protective measures are actually in place. In a field influenced for years by the decisions of Canadian courts, they missed hearing from a recognized Canadian legal expert about the latest case law decisions. In a work environment increasingly characterized by fiscal restraint, they missed expert counsel on creating an effective framework for business transformation that will permit better service to Canadians within a reduced resource environment.

Procurement people missed, which means that activities and services they provide will also miss. Operational groups – that need to rely on good procurement – also missed. As a result, opportunities for continuous improvements in procurement will be lost.

At the workshop, Procurement Ombudsman Frank Brunetta noted that in his Annual Reports he has emphasized the importance of raising awareness of procurement issues through information exchange, and that his Office emphasizes serving stakeholders by educating.

Comptroller General James Ralston spoke of the importance of professional development for working in a constantly changing environment. Given the billions of dollars spent on contracts every year, and when there is a constant loss of seasoned staff, a sustainable procurement community is of prime importance to the government.

Chief Human Resources Officer Daniel Watson spoke of the importance of giving procurement staff the opportunity to talk with others who do the same work, especially in today’s environment of highly specialized activities performed under high pressure and constantly subject to intense scrutiny.

Please listen to them. The government has to make sure that it has and maintains the knowledge and expertise required to ensure value for money. There has to be priority on ensuring continuous learning for procurement staff.

Visionary managers and executives are constantly expanding staff knowledge and competencies. They know that short-term gain for long-term pain is not a wise investment.

Be one of them. CIPPM 2014 – the 25th anniversary edition – is in Ottawa next May. There is lots of time to ensure that your staff – procurement specialists and their clients – will benefit from this important event.

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