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Are We Reaching a Tipping Point?

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

By Stephen B. Gordon
April 22, 2016

destination-1285851_640One of the most significant issues facing governmental entities at all levels is how to get the work done. Tax increases are taboo, bonding resources are tapped out and many entities are turning to the very risky alternative of public-private partnerships (another topic for another column). Could governments be reaching the point—heaven help us—where they actually manage for results to the extent that such is possible in a political context? This question is relevant to all programmatic and functional lines in government but since my charge is to write about procurement, I will focus on that one area.

Thanks to the work done by NIGP, NCMA and other professional organizations, the quality of the individuals engaged in public procurement and the corresponding improved state of the practice in the field has increased noticeably during the past 40 years. Several additions to the public procurement tool kit, including procurement automation and spend management, have enhanced the procurement’s potential to make strategic contributions to governmental enterprises. Although there are still far too few college degree programs, for-credit certificate programs and even single for-credit courses in governmental procurement, the number of such programs is slowly growing and the contributions of those who have participated in these programs are being seen. Not-for-credit learning programs in procurement, which have been around for a while, continue to make a noticeable difference in how well procurement staff execute the missions of public entities, their component programs and business units.

The need for colleges and universities to offer quality for-credit learning opportunities in public procurement is part of the broader issue of how to build the right kind of public procurement workforce from the ground up. In particular, NIGP and faculty at several U.S. universities are into their second year of figuring out how to collaboratively create and sustain these opportunities in the face of opposition from traditional faculty, including those in schools of public administration and public affairs. The NIGP-led effort ultimately will succeed because time moves on, faculty members retire and the market speaks loudly.

The immediate challenge is how to impress upon elected officials and senior managers in government that procurement can make or break the achievement of their strategic goals. It is also critical to persuade them of the importance of having the right people, with the right competencies, values and personal traits in procurement positions. Next, it will be essential to persuade elected officials and senior government managers to take the necessary actions to fix the very broken systems through which government employees are hired, rewarded, retained, disciplined and terminated. Those of us who have worked with (or, should I say, under) elected officials know very well those elected officials will give their attention to the most publicly visible functions and not to activities like procurement and HR, which through the quality of their work directly impact the quality of the visible functions.

Once elected officials have taken the steps they need to take, it will fall to the senior managers in government to take the management actions they must take. Those actions will have to include supporting the ongoing improvement of the procurement workforce, giving the heads of their procurement program a voice in strategic decisions as well as providing them with the technology and other resources they need to do their jobs properly. Taking those needed management actions will not be easy because traditions, professional biases, personal ambitions and individuals’ needs to exercise power and control will get in the way.

If governments are going to operate and provide services in today’s world, elected officials and senior managers are going to have to push the barriers and constraints aside. The time for continuing to kick the can down the road is coming to a quick end. A big vehicle is bearing down on them. Will that vehicle provide a nice ride to a pleasant destination of achieved results or will it run them over? It will be up to the elected officials and senior managers to choose. Choices have consequences.

Author: Currently, the manager of the Graduate Certificate in Public Procurement and Contract Management program at Old Dominion University, Stephen B. Gordon, Ph.D., FNIGP, CPPO, soon will move to another university, where he will stand up a similar program. Dr. Gordon can be reached by email at [email protected].

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