Tennessee purchasing crew fine-tunes its pandemic response
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the two-person procurement team at Knoxville’s (Tenn.) Community Development Corp. (KCDC) leaped into action, says Terry McKee, IT and procurement director. “We immediately began seeking personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies, which is not something that we have needed much of in the past. We also became the one open office at our entity so that the mail and supplies could be delivered while virtually all other employees worked remotely.” McKee says half of the procurement team began working from home to provide social distancing. “This caused some growing pains but has worked very well,” he adds.
McKee says dealing with the pandemic is a work in progress. “We are still ‘triaging’ procurement needs in order to meet the demands on our time. For example, we have extended several contracts that were set to expire simply to give ourselves more time to handle them.” The department began holding pre-bid meetings solely by Zoom video conferencing; it also began holding bid openings by Zoom only. In addition, it began to only accept emailed bids. “We wrote an Emergency Procurement Procedures policy to comply with our governor’s Emergency Orders, which allowed us to not accept bids in person, to not conduct in-person bid openings and other activities,” McKee explains.
KCDC is the public housing authority for Knoxville and Knox County, Tenn. It manages and rents more than 3,700 units across more than 20 properties and manages the application process and distribution of 4,000 Section 8 vouchers. KCDC also serves as the redevelopment agency for Knoxville and fosters economic development through approving tax credits and incentives for new businesses looking to locate in the area.
McKee says cooperative purchasing agreements are potential time- and money-savers. “For smaller entities, including mine, one of the major benefits is the ability to leverage the volume of a larger agency and thus reduce per-unit costs. While we often think of national or regional co-ops, governments also need to look locally to find opportunities to jointly bid goods/services with other local entities.”
Procurement officials, however, need to do their due diligence, McKee cautions. “A procurement professional must evaluate the cooperative agreement to ascertain if it meets the entity’s legal needs and is eligible for usage. Additionally, the procurement professional must then determine if the cooperative contract actually is cost-attractive and the best solution for the entity.”
McKee says government procurement departments need to explore a variety of tools and techniques to become more efficient. These can include using automation (online bidding, emailing requisitions, posting results, RFP evaluation software, etc.) to only accepting questions via email or web portal. “An entity must examine its acquisition thresholds and, if allowed by elected officials, raise them to a realistic level.” Procurement teams, McKee adds, should consider hiring a consultant to look at the procurement operation for ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness. He says NIGP’s consulting program could be a good place to start.
McKee says the use of systems contracts (a form of strategic procurement) may boost efficiencies in buying operations. Systems contracts, which are often also called “term bids,” “requirements contracts” and “IDIQs” (indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity), are used to meet repetitive needs for equivalent goods or services at a government over a period of time (usually annually). Some types of goods and services bought through systems contracts include office supplies, MRO supplies, temporary labor and mowing services. McKee points to several advantages for using systems contracts. These include the ability to leverage the entity’s buying volume to drive costs down. Through the contracts, the department may be able to reduce the number of vendors that staffers need to deal with. The contracts may also simplify ordering.
McKee believes lean-staffed government procurement departments are facing bigger workloads. “Indeed, they are, since over the last few decades, generally across the nation, procurement staffs have been reduced with ever tighter budgets.” He says technology has provided some offsetting efficiencies. “Additionally, many entities have delegated more ordering against established contracts and low-dollar-value direct purchasing by the user departments.”
He predicts government procurement departments’ staffing and budgets will shrink in the coming year. “My guess is that in most entities, they are contracting due to the general uncertainty and decreased revenue. Fortunately for me, my budget stayed steady for our fiscal-year 2021, which began on July 1, 2020. This is yet another challenge for procurement professionals.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County. Contact: [email protected]