Procurement Often Pits Bureaucracy Against Best Practice (Opinion)

Abandoning tried-and-true procurement practices in the name of efficiency can cause more harm than good.

by / April 27, 2010

Government is known for cumbersome and often slow work processes. You've probably heard the saying, "The wheels of government grind slowly." This belief combined with working in the open where every misstep is subject to public scrutiny leads the public to believe government is inefficient and its officials and employees are corrupt. Additionally much of government's publicity over the last year was related to procurement and contracting scandals. Yet, an IT executive recently told me, "We do it better!" when describing government purchasing. Since I respect his opinion, it caused me to look closer at how that can be true.

Scandal Sells: When it comes to reporting on government, success is boring outside of our own circles and trade publications. Scandal and failure are more compelling for mainstream media. Compounding this issue is the fact that public-sector agencies often fail to actively market themselves and their successes. When they do try to get the word out, many government agencies still rely on traditional methods. Agencies that enjoy good reputations are often those that understand the need to market themselves to the public and take advantage of newer social media tools.

Doing It Better: Marketing our success works best when we're successful and can be tough in the public sector. Pressure from elected officials and special interest groups, overwhelming workloads, outdated rules and processes, and a lack of supporting systems can stymie best efforts. Despite these issues, the fact that government requires competitive processes that are open to public scrutiny and feedback, even protests from those involved, lead to better practices. Case in point: I am increasingly being asked by private-sector IT leaders about public-sector procurement practices and for samples of public-sector bids and RFPs. These private-sector IT leaders are taking government's best practices and adopting them although they aren't required to do so. The reason: When done well, government's purchasing processes can lead to better outcomes.

Back to Basics: So why are public-sector organizations experiencing procurement problems? While the situations and reasons vary, a closer look reveals a few common factors. First, agencies that stray from or fail to follow their own rules and processes can find themselves in trouble. This issue occurs when resources are stretched too thin from staff reductions or an increase in procurement workload without a comparative increase in staffing resources. It also occurs when experienced employees leave and new ones aren't adequately trained. A lack of planning ahead or time- sensitive situations also can lead agencies to stray from best practices.

This problem occurs when business units are allowed to work independently without central oversight, which is related to the next commonality - a lack of checks and balances. Often in the name of efficiency, business units handle their own procurement with little or no oversight by an outside party. The excuse cited is that a central procurement authority is too slow. Often the real reason is a lack of planning by the business unit or failure to involve central procurement early in the process. Though this observation might not be popular, it's familiar to those who work or have worked in central IT. The lack of external oversight makes it easier for intentional misconduct to occur and fosters unintentional problems and mistakes.

While it's advantageous to develop long-term relationships with vendors, common problems include: automatically renewing contracts, failing to properly vet vendors or relying exclusively on the information they provide. Smart agencies find references that aren't provided by the vendors and use their networks to obtain reliable information. More fundamental procurement practices, including contacting the references provided by the vendor, requiring demonstrations and site visits, and asking for financial and ownership information, can fall by the wayside when vendors are well known. Of course, the level of vendor vetting should be comparable to the complexity and procurement's cost.

In the area of procurement, familiarity can lead to complacency among co-workers. Recently a government official credited the agency's procurement scandal partially to employees trusting what other employees told them, leading to a lack of scrutiny. External oversight and formal auditing deter inappropriate actions or, at the very least, uncover problems after that fact to prevent them in the future. Auditing, if used effectively, also can lead to process improvements.

As IT leaders, technology may be the first solution that comes to mind to fix procurement problems, yet it's listed last. Technology can help. Online procurement systems increase consistency and rule compliance, lower people dependence, streamline the process, do not become complacent and can increase transparency. Additionally today's analytical capabilities can identify potential issues before they become huge problems. As government leaders, we help by following rules and processes - by being exemplars - and working with other business units to fix rules and processes that don't work well, as well as implementing technology solutions.

The bottom line is government can do procurement better. Following public-sector best practices and using technology make it possible.


Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas