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Let's be fair to procurement

3 min read

In a recent Twitter exchange, digital leaders in the UK and US were critical of procurement in the public sector. Others make similar comments about their colleagues in Legal and Finance. I agree there is a problem but I don’t think it is entirely fair to single out these teams. The rest of us need to accept some of the blame because, generally, we get the commercial services we deserve.

Most of the procurement teams that I work with (or supply chain, sourcing and commercial teams depending upon the organisation) are filled with highly qualified, experienced and dedicated people. They often have to work under pressure and tight constraints because their work has a high profile outside their organisation. Usually the pressure is amplified because these teams know that, if things go wrong later in a change programme, many unreasonable executives will point fingers at those who set up the initial commercial transactions.

Why is this unreasonable? Procurement and commercial activities might consume, say, 1% of the effort in a change programme. You can argue that this work has an outsized impact on the rest. Fine - let’s raise the impact to 10% - but that still leaves plenty of other things to go wrong, including: failure to invest in team work, failure to commit the best resources, poor change management and weak executive sponsorship.

Using the right tool for the job

As well as being unfair this excessive focus on commercial transactions can be damaging. As procurement, legal and commercial teams are not around for 99% of the time, when 90% of the problems are going to occur, their tools for managing risk are limited. Ideally, others would step forward and take accountability but, too often, this does not happen. Instead, procurement teams try to eliminate risks and contain costs through the limited tools they can control - the procurement process and the resulting contracts - leading to slow and expensive procurements, rigid and bureaucratic contracts and all the other problems raised in these debates.

So let’s challenge procurement to change but let’s recognise that the rest of us have to do the other 90% of the work by creating the right environment. This means:

  • calling out lack of leadership or teamwork in delivery
  • committing the resources and brain power to get things done
  • understanding the risks and managing them in the right way (often that won’t be the procurement process or the commercial agreements).

Once we have shown procurement how responsible and effective we can be in delivery you might be surprised at how flexible and creative they can be in return.

Originally published on by Richard Barton