In April 2014 the Environics Institute and the Institute on Governance surveyed Canadian attitudes toward major Canadian institutions. Not being an actual institution, public procurement was not mentioned: that was nice, because it was not pilloried yet again. I was, though, a bit disappointed that a national survey on trust did not show us whether we as a country trust public procurement.
Historically, that trust has not existed. Scandal has dogged our public procurement since Confederation – and we are not alone. Numerous international surveys have found that public procurement around the world has been seen as a hotbed of corruption, clearly not to be trusted.
But what is trust? One definition is “…a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Thinking about it took me back to an international conference a few years ago, where I heard a procurement professional from France define “integrity” as (i) telling people what you are going to do; (ii) doing it; (iii) telling people that you did it; and (iv) writing it down.
Trust, integrity – they start to sound very similar. The trust definition above also said that “good relationships are built on trust.” Quality public procurement relies on those good relationships between public procurement authorities and the supplier community that the buyer needs to meet its needs.
What can, should and must buyers do to make sure that we can really trust our public procurement?
To start, recognize that trust, once lost, is very difficult to restore. One unsourced quotation is: “I’ve learned that it takes years to build up trust, and it only takes suspicion, not proof, to destroy it.” Another, also unattributed, is: “Trust is like a mirror…once it’s broken you can never look at it the same again.” Think of trying to put that mirror back together – a long, laborious and sometimes painful process.
Restoring public trust in our profession is no easier. Here are seven simple but effective approaches. Trust me!
1. Reduce your procurement documents (calls for bids and contracts) to the extent possible while keeping the essentials – and keep the remaining text simple. Reams of unnecessary verbiage suggest you are trying to obfuscate and thereby hide something: Would you trust someone you suspected of doing that?
2. Do your best to set out your need as results rather than specifications or detailed statements of what your contractor is to do. The fewer specifics you include, the more you increase the likelihood that suppliers will believe that you have not already chosen your contractor.
3. Then when you have made your selection, debrief unsuccessful bidders quickly and thoroughly. An open and honest discussion of why a result was what it was is a powerful tool to demonstrate that you can be trusted to do what you said you would. Remember integrity and documenting? An effective approach is to actually share with bidders your evaluation documentation for their bids – let them see exactly what you based your decision on.
4. In fact, throughout a procurement explain what you do and why, completely, accurately and without spin. When and if right is on your side, trust that people will accept the truth when you tell it. The first few times it may be difficult and even not work (remember those mirror shards) but stay the course.
5. When you are explaining or answering a question – or you need to act – and particularly when you have set a timeline, provide information and decisions quickly. Similar to obfuscating documents, delays, bouncing phone calls and emails are more than likely to be seen as delaying tactics while you are either fiddling a result or making up an answer – and your trust quotient will plummet.
6. Admit your mistakes. Bruce Lee said, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” Robert Downey Jr. said, “The lesson is that you can still make mistakes and be forgiven.”
7. Finally, be prepared to go it alone. Be wary of following the herd – you already know that people do not trust it.
No single organization can return all of public procurement to a position of public trust. The best you can do is make sure that people can trust you and what you do.
One step at a time…..