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Public Procurement and Entrepreneurial Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen B. Gordon
February 9, 2016

meeting-1002800_640During the recent holidays, I had an opportunity to visit with an entrepreneur and talk about the challenges he faces in running his lean and profitable tech business. After an hour of conversation, we agreed on the critical roles that the “parts,” the “fasteners” and the “fuel and grease” play in young companies like his and could play in public procurement programs, where I have spent most of my career.

Although this may seem obvious to you, it may not seem obvious to most college and university administrators and faculty who run or oversee public administration degree programs or senior administrators in government under whose authority and responsibility procurement and contract management programs exist. If public procurement in the 21st century is going to support the missions and visions of governments that must become more entrepreneurial, it will have to be viewed, leveraged, resourced and managed differently than it currently is.

The organizational “parts” the entrepreneur and I discussed included the human capital, supplies, technology and contractual services managers, supervisors and workers use to get their jobs done and, ideally, together with others, achieve enterprise goals. We talked about how critical it is to hire the right people with the right values, competencies and aptitudes: people who are “good fits.” Not having spent any time working in the public sector, my conversation partner was incredulous when I explained how difficult it is in government to bring in and retain employees who are responsive to business needs and shed individuals who are not. He was amazed by how challenging it can be in public-sector organizations to acquire needed goods and services, even when you have the best and brightest individuals, who fit your needs, on your procurement team.

With regard to enticing the cream of job seekers to seek employment in our respective realms, the entrepreneur and I agreed that the best and the brightest could be attracted to work in high-tech businesses more easily than they can be brought into public procurement programs. I noted that, sadly, public procurement as a career option is not even on the radar of most college or university students, much less viewed by those students as an exciting, rewarding and financially attractive career option that offers opportunities to make real differences in their localities, states, the nation and the world beyond.

“Why is this?” the entrepreneur asked me. “It’s rather simple,” I replied. I pointed out the paucity of degree programs and singular courses or learning units in courses in colleges and universities; the failure of career counselors and centers to push public procurement as a career option; and insufficient action by the professional associations that represent public procurement to promote this valid career opportunity as contributing factors to the lack of awareness.

Moving on, the entrepreneur and I talked about how fasteners hold things together and how they include everything from tape and glue to nuts, bolts and clamps. We agreed that without the right fasteners properly installed in the right places, organizations are merely collections of disconnected or randomly connected parts with no potential to become efficient systems that drive strategic goals. The entrepreneur and I spent the most time discussing the fasteners in organizations: shared vision and values, communication and cooperation, competent management and accountability for everyone in the organization. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about policies and procedures other than to agree that policies and procedures, often wrongly viewed in government as being etched in stone, have a way of hindering more than helping.

From there we transitioned to exploring the fuel and grease organizations need to achieve their goals. After noting the indisputable need for sufficient financial resources, we moved quickly to other forms of organizational fuel and grease, which we deemed every bit as important as the funding. These included some things that “old-school” managers in government would scoff at or even consider heretical, including engagement, empowerment, tolerance for reasonable risk-taking and failure, flexibility and a variety of rewards for success—not to mention technology and other tools workers need to get their jobs done.

If public procurement in the 21st century is going to contribute as much as it can to governments becoming more entrepreneurial, senior public administrators will have to view, resource and manage procurement much differently than they currently do. Academicians and career advisers will have to change their ways, too.


Author: Stephen B. Gordon, Ph.D., FNIGP, CPPO, is the program director of the graduate certificate in public procurement and contract management at Old Dominion University. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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