City purchasing crew steps up as it grapples with COVID-19
“One day we were all at the office. The shelter-in-place order was issued, and the next day we were in a totally different work environment.” That’s how Darryl Sweet, General Services Manager in Berkeley, Calif., describes the significant changes in his city department due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He notes that his department supports the logistics section of the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “So we needed to be in steady contact with them, but also had to shelter in place.” Sweet says his team set up a rotating schedule. “One staffer comes to the office each day as the EOC’s primary contact. The rest work from home, but are available to assist on EOC items.” Sweet says he works remotely as often as possible, and that he continues to supervise staff on regular work, as well as EOC activities.
To date, Sweet’s department has relied on many existing supplier contracts and relationships as the EOC has ramped up its activities. The Berkeley government has had a couple of COVID-19 procurement challenges, Sweet explains: “One difficulty is lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies and long lead times for those orders. Another is merging our ongoing regular work (not everything has stopped) with the urgent needs of the EOC.” Regarding the latter, Sweet says the department is handling the situation pretty well through effective transparency and communication.
Sweet believes public procurement departments were facing bigger workloads, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. He notes that budgets have been relatively stable, and/or growing, since the recession, and purchasing departments have not necessarily grown in staff size during this same period. “Purchasing thresholds do not change in concert with economic trends.” Sweet concludes: “As budgets remain solid, and projects continue to be approved, and competitive requirements still need to be met, the department’s workload continues to increase.”
Sweet says that for many agencies, using cooperative agreements can save time. “If one’s department is at workload capacity, and has a tight timeline to meet based on departmental or agency demands, use of a cooperative agreement [or agreements] can save days, weeks, or months.” He notes that time actually saved via a cooperative agreement can depend on agency-specific requirements. One variable in the mix, he says, could be the time required to get a project contract approved by an agency’s governing body.
Sweet described how the Berkeley procurement team saved time and effort using a cooperative pact. “What would have been a multi-month exercise for us to bid office supplies became a contract more quickly through utilizing the cooperative strategy.”
Sweet says there are other ways governments can set up cooperative deals to save time for the buying agencies. One technique would be to partner with other nearby agencies and run a regional sourcing event, or to piggyback on a single local contract that meets agency bidding requirements. “A regional sourcing event could include two, three, or four agencies in the same region administering a joint procurement. Here in California, that would be like the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, Albany and Richmond joining together to compete something, and ending up with a regional contract dealing with the nuances of our particular location,” Sweet explains.
Continuing to implement electronic sourcing methods is another tool public purchasers can use to streamline operations, Sweet says. “Many enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have unused, or underused modules. Activating them, implementing them, even to a limited degree, can push efficiencies.”
Sweet believes cooperative purchasing contracts can help governments reduce administrative overhead and costs. “Impact will vary from agency to agency, but when faced with the ‘bid or cooperative contract’ choice, in some cases it is to the advantage of the agency to use a cooperative agreement. There could be multiple purchases at the same time, and providing a full, end-to-end, competitive bidding event may not be practical with current staffing. In addition, going out for formal bidding may simply not get the results in the time needed by a department. A quickly accessed, usable cooperative agreement can remove hours of labor, and put contracting and implementing right to the front of the line, so to speak.”
Sweet believes we will see more regional cooperatives in operation in the future. “While most of my colleagues can use just about any cooperative out there, some have expressed issues with using those based on out-of-state programs and events. Governing bodies are becoming more hip to the cooperative scene, too, and want the benefits, but also want to encourage local economic stimulation. It’s a difficult balance to strike sometimes. But, if a region could produce a cooperative agreement, and it would be used in just that region, then the local impact can still be realized, as can the economies of scale.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County and the GPN web site. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org