Procurement teams struggle to meet agency pandemic demands
Because of the pandemic, public procurement officials are doing some heavy lifting, says Rebecca L. Kee, Purchasing Agent in Virginia Beach, Va. “Procurement departments have been tasked with doing more with less, and when you add in the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the procurement-heavy response it has required, the workload becomes overwhelming.” The resulting increased workload necessitates a priority system in which organizational projects and services can be and often are delayed due to a lack of procurement staffing, Kee says.
Personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 testing materials and testing tools are some of the pandemic-related products that Virginia Beach’s procurement team has been buying. Scheduling software to enhance social distancing and help ensure that meeting attendance is kept within safe limits has also been on the department’s shopping list. “Many of our public-facing departments are requiring meeting appointments post-COVID-19; in the pre-COVID era, the public could come and go as they pleased,” Kee says. The department has also been purchasing equipment for teleworking throughout the jurisdiction. This category includes additional laptops and a boost in remote log-in capacity. Plexiglas dividers, taller cubicle walls and other fixtures designed to safeguard workers and building visitors have been acquired in recent months, Kee adds.
Using agencies often have a sense of urgency when they ask the procurement team to acquire pandemic-related products, Kee says. “Because the precautions surrounding the pandemic do change rapidly and the decisions to open or not open government facilities also change rapidly, the needs [of agencies] are often very last-minute adaptations to current needs.”
Kee sees cooperative purchasing as an important tool for time-pressed public purchasing teams. “It has been my experience that most procurement departments could not function without cooperatives. My concern comes when we are forced to use cooperative contracts just to get through the workload. Procurement departments still require sufficient staff to use the cooperative option when it makes sense and brings the best value to our organizations.”
Kee says procurement departments that use cooperative agreements can better keep up with workloads during times of lean-staffing. There’s an important side benefit, she adds. “Cooperative deals also allow the focus of a high-performing department to move from the more tactical focus to a strategic focus by reducing the administrative burden of these often large and complex procurements.”
Kee believes cooperative purchasing contracts can help reduce administrative overhead and costs for government agencies. “The leverage of the buying power of multiple jurisdictions, the staff time on some really complicated solicitations and the ease of transactions are hard to match on many cooperative contracts.” Kee cautions, however, that not all cooperative contracts are created equally. “The key to using cooperatives is being able to understand your organizational needs, your market and your staff expertise, and then vetting the cooperative contract itself.” To vet the cooperative contract, Kee says public buyers should ask:
-–Does the contract meet your agency’s needs?
–Was the contract solicited in accordance with your agency’s guidelines?
–Does the contract offer a capability to partner with local or small, women- and minority-owned (SWaM) businesses?
Kee says her department often considers using subcontractors or vendors that are local or SWaM businesses as Virginia Beach suppliers. She notes that many of these firms often serve as partners on larger cooperative agreements. “Some of our largest cooperative contracts are with SWaM businesses that partnered with larger organizations to meet our needs. It’s a win-win.”
Kee predicts public buyers will increasingly rely on regional cooperative purchasing. “Communication is improving among procurement departments out of necessity due to leaner staffing. I expect to see more cooperative purchasing as opposed to borrowing of specifications and scopes of work.” She predicts larger cooperative contract organizations will emphasize the benefits of the contracts and the ease of use as opposed to just better pricing. “It will be more of a best-value approach,” Kee explains.
Kee forecasts the pandemic will put a damper on 2020 government spending. “Most local governments are choosing to be conservative at this time due to the uncertainty of revenues. Due to the heavy lift of purchasing for the COVID-19 pandemic, shrinking procurement departments worry city leadership. Hiring and travel freezes and less discretionary spending will be the norm for the remainder of 2020.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County and the GPN web site. Contact: [email protected]