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Policy+Action With Dan Kim: Let’s Professionalize Purchasing

The public servants who handle procurement wield millions of dollars and important contracts supporting work with far-reaching impacts. So why are they underpaid? Contributor Dan Kim discusses possible solutions.

Today’s labor market is extremely competitive when it comes to hiring the best and the brightest. This is doubly so for government, where pay in many occupations is appreciably lower than the private sector. Couple this with the “silver tsunami” of retirements, and you have a major problem with public-sector recruitment and retention.

What’s much harder to figure out is how to fix this given our fiscal constraints. Sure, we can raise public-sector salaries, but state and local revenue — even in good years — can’t match what the private sector pays.

What we need instead are strategic ways to recruit and retain public-sector employees whose job functions require:
  • A high degree of technical mastery
  • Skill sets easily transferrable to the private sector
  • Extensive knowledge in government administration not found elsewhere
  • Decision-making that has significant consequence to statewide operations
We need to target job functions that fall under these criteria by offering fiscal incentives that will not only improve recruitment and retention but also promote skills development and better government operations.

As the former director of the California Department of General Services with 25-plus years of executive-level experience in state and local government, I worked with hundreds of different job classifications and functions. And in my prior role as president of the National Association of State Chief Administrators, I often heard from my peers about their procurement woes, particularly when it came to IT. I can say from experience that procurement officials are underpaid, given the skill level required for success, and underappreciated, considering their impact on government operations.

In many state and local governments, the staff who write the bid specifications, determine the awarding criteria, prepare the RFP narrative, respond to bidder questions, help select the winning bidder and negotiate contract terms are often paid at a rate like other administrative positions. There is no appreciable pay difference for procurement officials who, if they do their job well, must have strong technical skills, project management experience, a collaborative mindset, strategic sensibility and intestinal fortitude. These public servants make critical decisions that impact statewide IT projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars. If they do their job poorly, procurement officials may be responsible for lengthy delays, vendor protests, litigation and/or poor vendor performance. We’ve all witnessed or heard about the failed IT project where the root cause of failure stemmed from the initial procurement. Those failures cost government considerably in terms of money, service delivery and trust with the public.

So how do we decide who gets paid more as a procurement official? That’s a good question. Many hands often touch a procurement, so there often is no bright line to distinguish who is doing a key procurement function. I propose these options for consideration:

Create procurement-specific job classifications: Governments may consider creating different job classifications for procurement officials, which would pay more than other administrative positions. While this option has its merits, it goes against the general direction to streamline public-sector hiring by reducing the multitude of civil service job classifications which often confuse job applicants and limit outside recruitment.

Provide a pay differential for all procurement staff: The state of California currently offers 400-plus pay differentials, and most local governments offer pay differentials for job functions that are difficult to recruit or require a higher degree of skill. Similarly, we can and should offer a pay differential to procurement staff who are instrumental in issuing and awarding solicitations.

Provide a pay differential for procurement staff certified as procurement professionals: A more targeted option may be to promote and provide financial incentives for those procurement staff who receive professional certification in their field. Fortunately, there are two very reputable professional certifications already offered for procurement officials. The Universal Public Procurement Certification Council, which was jointly formed by the Institute of Government Purchasing Inc. and the National Association of State Procurement Officials, is a nonprofit organization that governs and administers the Certified Public Procurement Officer (CPPO) and Certified Professional Public Buyer (CPPB) programs. Both are rigorous programs specifically tailored for public procurement officials. State and local governments should incentivize procurement staff to get CPPO- or CPPB-certified by paying for training and offering a significant salary differential for those procurement officials who receive certification. This type of targeted fiscal incentive may offer government the best “bang for the buck” when it comes to improving state operations through better procurement practices.

I share these options for consideration because procurement must be recognized as a critical function within government. We need to professionalize this field and elevate it as a profession. Procurement shouldn’t be something that people just fall into; rather, it should be recognized and rewarded as a highly respected career path for those who want to make a difference in government. Financial incentives can help generate greater interest in procurement as a profession. Perhaps more significantly, professional certification can promote greater standardization and use of best practices, along with a stronger grounding in ethics — all of which will lead to better products and services at a lower price for improved outcomes in state and local government.

Daniel C. Kim is director of procurement for the Weideman Group. His 25-plus years of experience in state and local government includes serving as director of California’s Department of General Services and a term as president of the National Association of State Chief Administrators.


Daniel C. Kim is director of procurement for the Weideman Group. His 25+ years of experience in state and local government includes serving as director of California’s Department of General Service and a term as president of the National Association of State Chief Administrators.