Celebrating the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic: Procurement professionals
We look forward to it every year. We rejoice in the celebrations and acknowledgements of all the amazing procurement professionals who create a significant impact in their entities and their communities. March is Procurement Month and our profession rises to the center of the spotlight. However, as this past year has demonstrated, a single celebratory month each year is surely not sufficient to recognize the tremendous value of what procurement professionals do every day.
Without procurement, state and local governments, schools, airports, universities and other entities could not carry out their missions. Procurement fuels valuable citizen services and programs, facilitates infrastructure modernization and expansion, and ensures operational continuity. At no time in our history have we seen procurement answer the call to support our communities on such as grand scale as we have throughout the COVID-19 crisis. We are part of the teams of first responders, we are working in the Emergency Operation Centers, we are on call at all hours to chase down critical goods and services needed to sustain field operations. We are innovators, we are problem solvers and we are public servants.
Change agents on the rise
While procurement isn’t typically viewed as a “bleeding edge” profession, as a community we raced to the forefront of the pandemic to demonstrate our ability to be innovative and resourceful in the toughest circumstances. Through my work with NIGP Consulting over the past year, I’ve met with procurement professionals who are pioneering new processes, implementing state-of-the-art technology solutions and securing support from leaders on novel—yet effective—policies that will advance the public procurement practice into a new era. Entity leaders, decision makers and end users are recognizing the value of procurement as strategic partners and change agents.
Procurement teams of all sizes have shown just how agile they can be, as they have learned to pivot throughout this season. I recall my own experiences running tabletop exercises while at the City of Tucson to determine our emergency preparedness. We would vet scenarios such as a fire or natural disaster that would prevent us from getting into the office to do our work. At the time, we couldn’t fathom the idea of the entire procurement department, let alone the majority of the entity, working remotely for a year with no time to prepare. Yet, here we are—a year after most procurement professionals were suddenly told to go home and stay home—doing what we previously thought would not be possible. Most importantly, procurement professionals have proven they are adaptable and creative, coming up with practical solutions to the public sector’s biggest problems.
Our commitment is unquestionable
Standing up a virtual operation was a bit jolting at first, particularly for those with antiquated policies, cumbersome processes and ineffective (or worse, non-existent) technological solutions. You didn’t allow the unforeseen, the challenging, the lacking or the difficult to prevent you from stepping up, working harder and providing the critical support your entities and communities needed. In fact, the only thing harder to fathom than an entire workforce pivoting to a virtual environment overnight is the number of hurdles procurement professionals have cleared in such a short period of time under extremely extenuating circumstances.
Emergency Operation Center teams will confirm that pandemic procurement is nothing like post-hurricane procurement. Support from colleagues not experiencing the localized emergency is often available. That wasn’t the case this time around. Government entities at all levels were literally bidding against one another to secure essential goods and services, sometimes sourcing from first-time vendors halfway around the world. Procurement was inundated with unknown sources, having to find ways to vet potentially unreliable, sometimes unqualified vendors. In spite of those challenges, the procurement community unified and leveraged its collective knowledge, skills and resources. Through synergy, procurement teams across the nation demonstrated the full power of our professional community.
Though I’m impressed at the collaborative sourcing that occurred for personal protective equipment (PPE), medical supplies and other high-value items, I’m even more proud to be part of a community that was willing to pause, even in the midst of emergencies, to provide help to peers throughout the country.
The alliances that were formed and strengthened between procurement practitioners across the United States—and even around the globe—inspired us to work through our collective difficulties. We shared our experiences, we combined data on vetted sources, and we offered ideas and solutions. We also conveyed our challenges more broadly and sourced possible solutions through virtual webinars, training sessions and coffee chats. Our stakeholder partners went above and beyond to ensure public procurement professionals had access to the tools, insights and support needed to help procurement rise to the occasion.
We have a long road to recovery, or to whatever our “new normal” may be, but I know without a doubt that this profession and all of you have what it takes to get us there.
Change is necessary
While it may not have be fully evident when we are in the thick of things, COVID-19 forced our profession to face certain realities. Processes that were broken, policies that were too rigid and systems that couldn’t sufficiently facilitate a full procure-to-pay workflow quickly became glaringly apparent. This season of disruptive change forced us to expedite those long overdue assessments of our current state and have created new opportunities for us to consider a new, future state. Let us not lose sight of this incredible opportunity to envision a more effective and efficient “new normal.”
By thinking and, more importantly, working outside the box, we have enabled our clients to achieve their goals. We have shown that we can accomplish a great deal working collaboratively with our internal and external stakeholders.
In the coming months, we’ll start to reflect upon how well public procurement departments actually performed during the pandemic. We’ll start to analyze the true value of quantified versus qualified metrics. We’ll assess whether our established policies, procedures, systems and even staff fared well when under pressure. Along the way, we would be remiss if we failed to consider making changes, providing new training or refining our organization’s best practices.
People make the biggest difference in government’s ability to successfully secure the goods, services, construction and systems needed to build thriving communities, but we need to ensure they are well-equipped to succeed in their tasks—no matter how big or small. We must ensure our staff and our colleagues feel valued, appreciated and supported.
Make it a priority to share what procurement has accomplished within your entity and your community. By acknowledging our continued challenges, embracing our collective strengths, and pooling our collective resources, we will continue to overcome and adapt to any situation—and elevate procurement’s profile across the entire public sector. Remember, YOU are the unsung heroes of this pandemic and you are to be celebrated every day!
Marcheta Gillespie, FNIGP, CPPO, NIGP-CPP, C.P.M., CPPB, CPM, is president of NIGP Code & Consulting, procurement trainer/instructor for Periscope Holdings.
This article originally appeared in the Q1 issue of Government Procurement.