The procurement code seeks to increase public confidence in government purchasing. The rules set forth a detailed process by which government tries to ensure a fair and open competition to maximize the value of taxpayer dollars. It also provides safeguards when the integrity of the purchasing process is compromised. This is a noble purpose.
But, can the procurement process simultaneously create a disadvantage for government?
Despite government’s proclamations that it wants to be innovative and efficient while moving at the speed of business, government’s procurement culture is built on a foundation of compliance and process. Even the most ambitious political appointees meet internal resistance from procurement officers and government officials who are more concerned about procedure than results.
Using the cover of a clearly referenced procurement code provision makes it easy for government officials to say “no.” “No” is the easiest response to defend. It stops the purchasing process, it offers no alternatives and creates no risk of responsibility. “No” also chills the relationship with the vendor community.
This environment is especially not ideal for startup companies seeking to introduce an innovative service or product. In fact, many startups either quit out of frustration or never bother to try. It’s a shame because many startups offer a new product or service that they know can help government be more efficient while enhancing an agency’s mission and reducing costs.
So, how can the government pursue innovative solutions and start taking advantage of them?
First, it must start at the top. Agency leadership needs to send a clear message that government wants to create a culture of learning and exploring. That means dealing with risk and uncertainty. These leaders must provide guidance to empower procurement and operation officers to look at a new way of doing business. This kind of air cover and support gives procurement officers a safe zone for taking chances. Leaders must also be willing to be accountable when a new idea goes wrong.
Second, it requires procurement officers to start with yes. Simply starting the conversation with, “This is an interesting idea, let me look at the procurement code to see if I can make this work” changes the dynamic. As one of my favorite procurement officers always says: “Procurement officers must stand in front of the code, not behind it.”
However, being willing to find solutions requires the procurement officer to do more than memorize the procurement laws. Instead, a procurement officer must understand how the procurement code can be used to facilitate an agency’s mission or program. This requires training and experience.
Most importantly, vendors must also take responsibility. A vendor should thoroughly understand the procurement process. Knowing what is possible under the code arms a vendor to debate a “no” response. The goal is not to make a procurement or budget official look bad, but to present an alternative that is based in law. This encourages a healthy debate about the path forward.
Additionally, a vendor must invest time in the government market. A firm could have the most exciting and innovative product, and have agencies lining up with interest. But if the vendor hasn’t forged relationships with the right officials, demonstrated its product will work in government and satisfied state or local regulations, the procurement conversation will be a short one.
The common saying of “no risk, no reward” is especially true when it comes to innovation in business. If procurement officials have support from the top and accordingly become more willing to explore new options, and if vendors can come to the conversation armed with knowledge of the procurement code and evidence-based defenses about their product’s viability, there are no limits to the kinds of successful solutions we could start to see take hold.