With so much coverage in the news about government procurement coming off the rails it is hard for the public to have a good feeling about the entire process.
Perceptions of the nature of the purchasing function within any large organization is still evolving, as innovative approaches develop in response to newly identified concerns and changes in buying options such as those which are resulting from emerging technologies and increased global trade.
It is often said good procurement is at the heart of good government. Proper conduct of public procurement entails proper stewardship by each level of government of the public funds entrusted to it, whether raised through taxes levied by that level of government directly or obtained by way of a transfer payment from some other level of government.
Stewardship, in the public procurement context, means the careful and responsible management of public funds, not only through the safeguarding of taxpayers’ money, but also through the promotion of the public interest.
Within government, the responsibility for proper stewardship is pervasive. It is not simply the responsibility of elected politicians and senior members of the public service. The duty of stewardship extends to each and every person concerned in public administration, whether as a career public servant, or even if engaged in public administration only in the capacity of a private contractor.
Having worked as a purchasing manager at a large municipality many years ago, it is my view that with very limited exceptions, it is the staff of the municipality’s purchasing department that must take day-to-day charge over the purchasing function.
Individual departments that order goods and services through purchasing are unlikely to do so, for they are focused on the delivery of their own programs and services and are not directly concerned with overall municipal operations.
Council cannot expect to be involved in thousands of contracts that a typical municipality enters into each year.
In fact, the dollar amount that requires council to even get involved has increased so dramatically over the years that only the extremely large and high dollar value construction projects are even brought to the attention of council for approval.
The only other reason for council involvement is when a contract has been brought to their attention by reason of some type of controversy by one of the bidders or the public.
Only rarely do procurement issues attain a sufficient level of public interest to motivate a municipal council to focus active interest on them.
While such lack of interest may be understandable in an age of sound bites and momentary fame, it is both short-sighted and contrary to the general welfare of municipal governance. Procurement activity has an important bearing on both the effectiveness of overall municipal operations and the ability of a municipality to meet the rising needs and expectations of its citizens.
While procurement may seem mundane, municipal councils need to devote the time required to see that procurement activity furthers efficient performance of public service.
There needs to be a shift away from traditional bureaucratic approaches to a more flexible process that focuses more on outputs that serve the realization of the social and economic goals set by council.
Linkage of procurement with service delivery furthers the goal of transparency in procurement. Individual decisions become linked to a common purpose.
Most importantly, a more effective procurement approach may result in a reduction in the problems that frequently beset the actual delivery of public services and programs.
Municipal governments across Canada are still not all on the same page.
One decision made on a procurement issue from a specific municipality could be in opposition to one made by another municipality 50 miles down the road.
Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.