Procurement
February 13, 2014

When urgency becomes the norm

“This is urgent,” the poobah said. “If you don’t put this contract in place right away the consultant is going to find a contract somewhere else. I want that consultant, so you have to do it now: it is urgent.”

Take care when you push the system for urgent action. What you see as requiring immediate and unusual measures may be seen by others as a caprice: disparate perspectives can have negative long-term repercussions. When you deal with a service organization like procurement (or others such as human resources or finance) calling a requirement “urgent” risks short-term gain for long-term pain.

“Urgent” may start with an emergency. In procurement, the Contracting Policy says that a pressing emergency (what other kind is there?) is “a situation where delay in taking action would be injurious to the public interest…[it] may be an actual or imminent life-threatening situation, a disaster which endangers the quality of life or has resulted in the loss of life, or one that may result in significant loss or damage to Crown property.” True emergencies will arise and unarguably must be dealt with quickly.

The Government Contracts Regulations and the Contracting Policy recognize this. Responding to an emergency allows the use of special contracting authorities and can trump normally expected competitive processes and permit a direct procurement. There is a general recognition (and I think acceptance) that the priority is avoiding or fixing the situation – act and, if necessary, seek forgiveness later. Accountability is vital: you need to be ready and able to explain and justify your actions.

Most “urgent” situations do not have that degree of downside risk. They are more part of day-to-day operations. But when someone decides that some item requires urgent attention, it is usually explicit or implicit that the particular matter needs to take precedence over others. This discretionary choice is where problems can and, too often, will arise. It gets worse if there is also an expectation of shortcuts and rule-bending.

When a manager/client claims urgency the procurement service – any service – will respond, hopefully quickly and well. To do so, it may be forced to redeploy resources already assigned to meeting the needs of other clients. It is unreasonable to expect those other organizations to accept delays in their procurements if the urgency is dubious. Service action may also require participation by other people, such as members of internal review committees: those people will be less than pleased – and the originating manager’s credibility will suffer – if and when the urgency is found to be spurious.

While playing the urgency card with others can hurt you, it will likely be worse when you deal with your staff. Cry wolf once, you may get the service you want; cry twice and you risk resentment or even anger, a loss of confidence in your decision-making and leadership abilities, and probably an overall performance drop.

Demanding urgency has other interesting dimensions. All too often the requirement is less than fully defined, lacking the information needed for the service to start action. The service returns quickly to the manager seeking additional information, only to find that the manager is too busy to respond. Alternatively the manager may well defer the information request to someone else – maybe the consultant – only to be told that only the manager can provide the information. Urgent: really?

Priorities can change over time. Procurement people get really frustrated when, after they have set other work aside to run an urgent file, it is time to evaluate bids and they are told that their client cannot provide the technical resources to carry out the evaluation process. What the client manager is treating as a change in priorities, the procurement people see as proof that the original requirement was not urgent at all.

Given the above, be sure you require urgent action only when it is clearly really important to move with haste.

Take the time to communicate: explain your requirement and the basis for its urgency to the procurement people. They don’t have to agree with you – it is your decision – but make sure that you have a common view and understanding that the urgency is not capricious.

Support your own decision. When procurement comes back to you for more information, explanations, resources, whatever, make the time on a priority basis to respond.

Keep the lines of communication open. If the file status changes, tell procurement as soon as you can. Urgent needs to mean urgent.

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