Face to face
Meet the procurement council's John Read
by Dave Todd
The idea of a national network of public sector procurement professionals leveraging the expertise of colleagues from different institutions is appealing. But can it become reality?
Enter the Canadian Public Procurement Council (CPPC), a non-profit corporation based in Quebec City. CPPC has been working since 1999 to promote information sharing and awareness of common approaches to challenges facing hundreds of government departments, agencies and other organizations across Canada. Indeed, it estimates that, beyond its "primary constituency" of more than 100 federal and about 500 provincial and territorial entities, there are potentially some 10,000 Canadian organizations within its orbit once municipal, educational and public health care institutions are added.
John Read, a special projects director at Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) headquarters in Hull, plays a dual role on the council. He is the elected president as well as his federal employer's designated representative on the CPPC board. PWGSC, with 1200 procurement professionals administering more than 50,000 contracts worth over $8 billion a year, is Canada's biggest purchasing organization.
The council has had two national forums (Quebec City in 1999, Ottawa in 2000 and is having another in St. John's this fall), where it appeared that there is tremendous interest in networking. "It is gratifying and a pleasant surprise when you find you have given someone an opportunity to talk to colleagues they might not otherwise ever have talked to, Read said.. "The commonalties are not always obvious, but you'd be surprised who can help you with what. Take a federal munitions buyer and a buyer for a small school - they might talk about warranty claims; the small school needs warranty on what they buy; they can't afford to just throw things away because they break down."
Read described what he sees as the broad challenges faced by public sector procurement professionals, regardless of whether their own institution is national, regional or local in scope. "My core belief is that every person in the procurement business, day in and day out, comes across issues that they haven't faced before. And in coping they've got several choices. One is: 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.' And there's a huge chance that will come back to bite you. The other extreme: you're a competent, conscientious professional, and something comes up that you've never dealt with before. You research it, do due diligence and spend ages finding out about this thing you're buying. Somewhere in the middle is this: you ask a question and somebody out there - could be in the north of Saskatchewan - gets back to you and says: 'Been there, done that. You need to put these three clauses in your contract, and if you do that, then sign it and get it done.' If you're discussing common problems and common challenges, it's a short leap to say maybe we should work together to try and cope with these things."
Read thinks a possible future role for the CCPC would be to facilitate, on a contract basis, 'test-beds' involving the development of common standards that would be highly appealing to companies which would like to do competitive procurement for certain products across different levels of government, nationwide.
"Let's take the example of green [environmentally friendly] procurement," Read continued. "If I look five years down the road and put myself in the role of a Canadian supplier trying to make a buck, and I say: 'Green stuff, that's what I should do, I should produce green stuff.' Either a new company or new product line or take what I make already and make it green. The potential nightmare I see is this person does a horizon scan and asks what kind of standards am I going to have to meet to be qualified as green? And the answer comes back: there are 4,000 of them. There is no gatekeeper on that… the federal department of environment can set all kinds of standards but the City of Toronto doesn't have to meet them and, if the city does, well, the hospital corporation of Hamilton doesn't."
There is also a more general need, Read said, for information clearinghouses, including ones that operate cross-border. He cited the example of a public procurement organization in western Canada that got a call from a US city wanting to buy horses. "The RCMP breeds its own horses; they don't buy them. The city of Montreal does buy horses. Metro Toronto has horses. Now, how does someone out there know to get the US authority in touch with the city of Montreal or Toronto? "
Beyond the need for information clearinghouses is a far more profound challenge that Canadian public sector institutions face - an eroding talent base.
According to Read, the public procurement community is well into the process of raiding itself due to a huge shortage of qualified procurement people. Over the course of the next five years the federal government will lose a huge chunk of its mature procurement community and will replace them with people being hired now - basically, right out of school. "And procurement is not something that you learn like that," Read said, with a snap of his fingers.
"It takes time and experience with many different fields to become a really rounded procurement person. If we raid each other for these qualified procurement people, none of us is going to win. At the end of the day someone in our community is stuck with an empty chair, and maybe there's no one qualified to fill it."
Compounding this crisis, Read added, is the difficulty of qualified senior procurement professionals outside the federal public service gaining access to positions befitting their knowledge and experience. "There needs to be a professional certification system, or model, to enable people from different public sector areas to get into (the federal) government." As matters stand, there is no clear path to entry at "a mid-executive level" for, say, a highly qualified person from a major metropolitan area school board.
And things get more interesting still as Canada continues to pursue new international free trade agreements and greater definition is given to existing ones.
International trade agreements that provide new or greater foreign supplier access are raising the bar in terms both of skills and knowledge demanded of managers. The definition of what constitutes "good procurement" is a rolling one, Read said. The environment defining good procurement has shifted from meaning "get it fast" to "get it as fast as you can and persuade our trading partners that we're playing by the rules so that they'll keep giving us access to their markets." The multiple skills required as a bare minimum for today's procurement managers go so far beyond what was used to be required as to make the old term, purchasing agents, an anachronism, he contends.
However, Read says CPPC, as an association of like-minded professionals, should not take the path of becoming a certification and procurement training body in its own right. "Such organizations focus almost entirely on individuals and are not created for the purpose of having, say, PWGSC talk to the Lower Sackville school board. And that, to my mind, is the critical difference," he said. CPPC sees itself as an institution that facilitates "organizations that want to talk to organizations" about common issues, especially ones affecting their functionality from the perspective of public procurement sector professionals.
Dave Todd is Canadian correspondent for FT Energy Insight, an online energy news service of the Financial Times of London. He is also a 16-year veteran of daily newspaper and news service journalism in Canada.