by Richard Bray
With more than 750 delegates in attendance, the 12th annual Materiel Management National Workshop (MMNW) brought together people from across Canada with a keen professional and personal interest in its theme, "Procurement Reform @Work."
In a brief welcoming address, Janice Cochrane, deputy minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), sketched out her perspective on materiel management and procurement in the future. "I've only been in my new job a little over a month. I have learned in a very short time that government materiel management and procurement is a dynamic and innovative field, and I have come to see the energy, effort and integrity that it takes to work in this area."
Setting the scene
Jane Billings, assistant deputy minister at the Supply Operations Service Branch of PWGSC, was the morning's keynote speaker. She defined Procurement Reform as "a philosophy, a concept and a commitment. It will continue to evolve as we find better ways of doing things to meet the objectives of our stakeholders."
For anyone who might have doubted that the materiel management world is changing, she was categorical: "Yes, there is a formal Procurement Reform process, and, as ADM of SOS, I co-chair the Steering Committee. And, yes, there are a series of Procurement Reform initiatives, each with committees and sub-committees."
And she called on everyone to take part in the process. "We need everyone's input to go beyond policy to hands-on. It's our collective responsibility to ensure we have an environment where people feel encouraged, stimulated and motivated to contribute their thoughts on how to improve the procurement process."
Pointing out that the procurement system handles up to $13 billion worth of contracts, and 1.5 million transactions, each year she noted that, "some of our client stakeholders want to be able to conduct most of it electronically. This, alone, is a daunting task."
Electronic supply chain project
The "daunting task" Billings referred to is partly in the hands of Robert Groulx, acting director, Operations Management, Electronic Supply Chain (ESC) at PWGSC. In describing the ESC project, Groulx assured his listeners that "within the context of the project, this is probably by far the audience that is closest to it. Having a chance to talk to a group as large as this one, where the vast majority of people are involved directly or indirectly in the materiel management and procurement processes within the federal and provincial governments, is quite important to us."
Groulx said the ECS project is not about technology, but rather about business processes. ESC will ultimately allow end-to-end procurement, purchasing and payment for the government of Canada, while making the best possible use of existing resources within departments. PWGSC is managing the project, he said, but it is a government-wide initiative.
Drawing a clear link between the ESC project and Government On-Line (GOL), with ESC being by far the largest Pathfinder project in the GOL initiative, he said the ESC is a key to ensuring that Canadians will be able to access all government services online by 2004. Speaking after his presentation, he said, "It's definitely my perception that we're one of the key initiatives and we are very much aware of that and determined to make it happen."
For materiel management personnel who could not attend his presentation, Groulx said they should know that "we are working with them to provide better tools to do their job."
Professional development and certification
Last year, as participants looked ahead to the 2001 MMNW program, Janet Thorsteinson, PWGSC's director general, Supply Program Management Sector, said, "I think there is no doubt that a year from now, the focus for the materiel management community is still going to be on certification." She was correct.
The keynote address on Professional Development and Certification featured both a panel of qualified speakers and a full house. Don Chilibeck, director of Materiel and Project Management; Jane Cochran, senior director, Procurement Policy Division, Risk, Procurement and Asset Management Policy Sector; and Colleen Post, senior policy advisor, Risk, Procurement and Asset Management Policy Sector, represented Treasury Board Secretariat. They joined André Morency, Transport Canada's director general of Finance and Administration.
The panel indicated that over the next five years a comprehensive government-wide program will be developed. Project management will be included as part of the materiel manager's professional development, a task made easier by the fact that there is a lot of generic knowledge and strong linkages with procurement.
The panel also said that certification will be "strategic," with middle management the initial focus for much of the training. (People at that level have made commitments to their organizations as well as their profession. They have accumulated valuable work experience, and in practical terms, their careers will be long enough to return an investment in professional development.) Certification will be practical and based on organizational needs, so rank may be less important than job function in determining who is first in line for training.
The question was posed, "Could someone certified by PMAC or another body step in and do government procurement tomorrow?" The panel answered no, which raised the question of preparing new and qualified recruits for government service. As an example, panellists noted that the Agreement on Internal Trade and NAFTA imposes unique requirements for federal procurement specialists.
Asked when certification would be a necessary precondition for employment, the answer was, in effect, not soon. Departments would be at significant operational risk if certification requirements were imposed too quickly. The focus of the next few years will be on gathering professional knowledge and making it available.
Jerome Thauvette of PWGSC spoke about Supply Arrangements (SAs) for the implementation of Government On-Line initiatives. And, reflecting the interest the materiel management community has in both SAs and GOL, he spoke in front of a larger audience than he expected.
Comparing SAs to the more familiar Standing Offer, he said, "Supply arrangements are a bit different. I would characterize them as being in between a standing offer and a contract. SAs allow you to negotiate terms and conditions as you use them." The SA is not a contract, but a base document that forms part of resulting RFPs and contracts. The intent is to create a list of pre-qualified vendors who can provide goods and services and who have agreed to a minimum set of terms and conditions.
During consultations, clients said they wanted timely access, fast turnaround and value for money, among other things, while vendors said they did not want to be eliminated on price early in the process, they wanted a reasonable single source threshold and a "refresh" option. The refresh option means that vendors will be able to change the goods and services they offer and unsuccessful bidders will get more chances to qualify during the life of the contract.
Policy updates - procurement reform
Delegates attending the Policy Updates session were briefed by Jane Cochran and Janet Thorsteinson.
Procurement Reform, the audience was told, is designed to update a contracting process that has become complex, expensive, bureaucratic and dated and suffers from "paralysis by analysis." The presenters outlined the 14 distinct initiatives in the Procurement Reform process, ranging from a renewed Treasury Board policy framework through to information technology issues. Trade agreements may present some obstacles to e-government implementation, delegates learned, while more work is needed to resolve indemnification issues.
Outside factors driving the move toward reform are globalization, technological change, a society in which lawsuits are replacing negotiation and greater public visibility. Overall, the basic principles underlying procurement are sound, but there is pressure to move faster.
And, Thorsteinson said, Advanced Contract Award Notices (ACANs) are deemed to be competitive, if the case has been made for sole-sourcing.
And in conclusion
There was a feeling of steady achievement at the 2001 MMNW compared to previous years. Materiel Management Institute president, BGen. Larry Laskkevich, said that three years ago, many people were frustrated, disappointed and disillusioned. "We have turned the corner. We have a strong perspective for the future."
Even delegates who did not hear Jane Billings' keynote address left the MMNW with a clear sense of the message she and other officials brought encouraging people to speak up and contribute to the process. "Your opinions, your experience and your vision are important to the progress and the success of Procurement Reform," she said.
Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based freelance writer specializing in the IT sector. He has been published in magazines and newspapers in Australia, the US and Canada and is now editor of Ottawa Computes. Before freelancing, he worked as a producer, reporter and senior writer for CBC in Toronto.