Procurement: The New Normal

Original article published on Linkedin by Dustin Lanier, CPPO

In marking time since the first US case of COVID-19. It's time to plan for the new normal of proactive government during a sustained response.

When Winston Churchill announced the defeat of Rommel in Africa in 1942, he declared: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

This echo from history calls for us to move to the end of the beginning, and build the new normal.

As I wrote about last week, the driving characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic is that this is not a temporary response scenario - this is a persistent reality until vaccines are widespread, and that will reshape our organizations in terms of where we do the work and how we do the work. 

As we mark the 100th day since the first case of coronavirus in the US on January 19th, it is an appropriate time to acknowledge that our new responsibilities are not temporary and to reconsider and rebuild our organizations around this reality.

Examples of factors that will cause this to be a profession changing event:

  • Reliance on Paper and Ink has been Exposed: Our tried and true processes of routing manila folders for blue ink signatures have been seen as “good enough,” and in many organizations, automation of these processes was seen as a deferrable luxury. Now that our widely distributed teams need digital processes and supply needs are so urgent, many anachronisms from the world of paper are being left behind temporarily, and likely permanently.
  • Supply Chain Management Will Be a Persistent Expectation: True supply chain management skills will be an ongoing expectation for government purchasing organizations. The heightened demand for medical supplies will put lasting pressure on our systems, and economic fluctuations will cause new supply challenges in areas ranging from food to fuel. Logistics, spend analysis, agile reporting and advanced sourcing techniques will become the norm.
  • Priorities Must be Recalibrated Quickly: Simply taking our best team members and having them staff the Emergency Operations Centers may be effective for short term events. But over a long and sustained period, it will mean the primary duties they are forced to defer risk becoming the next crisis. How we resource across all our responsibilities will soon be an urgent reality.
  • Budgets Will Become the Next Line of Defense: Likely budget shortfalls in state and local governments that will flow from economic interruptions will cause increasing pressure to drive savings and value into all parts of the public contract portfolio, increasing the strategic role of Procurement Officers.

There is a growing awareness that our new normal will require us to take these new factors in stride, and begin pulling the day to day operations back into focus, while our teams are still working from their kitchen tables.

There is no path back to where we were. If we can’t go back, then the only way out is through.

Public Procurement at an operational level needs to be rethought and rebuilt around three key characteristics:

  • Capacity: The fundamental ability to do work. Are we doing the right type of work? Are we doing unproductive work that should be discontinued or automated? Does our staff have the required skills for the changing demand? Do we have the right resources in the right roles?
  • Agility: The ability to drive velocity into our work. Are we able to efficiently change our policies and processes to reduce internal bottlenecks? Can we do things in new ways for better results? Can we apply creativity to solve new problems? Can we change our delegation of authority to focus first on our highest priorities?
  • Resiliency: The ability to overcome new obstacles and continue to deliver. Are our teams able to function remotely? Can we change to eliminate single points of failure? How do we build redundancy into our supply networks? Can we increase regional coordination to improve outcomes for ourselves and our peers?

In an effort to develop organizational maturity through the challenges we face, it’s important to capture the barriers we have overcome, what innovations we have created, what’s on the horizon across all of our work, and what we have learned about ourselves.  f a person on the street were to name a disaster requiring government response, the answer would probably be a hurricane. We have effective playbooks for mitigating hurricane impact.

There is a key difference between COVID-19 and a hurricane that makes it time to start talking about a new playbook.

When hurricanes form on the horizon, there are three tried and true phases of mitigation:

  • Prepare: Initiate protocols, pre-mobilize staff, activate Emergency Operations Centers
  • Respond: Execute plans, assess evolving situations; mobilize, coordinate and support front line response; search and rescue; urgently protect life.
  • Recover: Mobilize supply and temporary infrastructure; restore critical operating infrastructure; establish health and safety infrastructure; rebuild and restabilize.

We are currently confronted with a completely new and different challenge. This is not a chaotic and temporary force of nature like a hurricane - this is a terrible, and terribly efficient, pathogen on a sustained assault, requiring response from every level of government.   

Our government workers are in active response, not for days or weeks, but endlessly and without a projectable end. Procurement professionals have been moved from the back of the Emergency Operations Center to the front and center, as supply chain has been one of the most critical elements in this response. 

However, we need to begin acknowledging and discussing the fact that the standard arc from respond to recover has been broken. Response is not giving way to recovery.

Response is defined by heightened urgency and singularity of focus. When will the response phase transition? Will we recognize it when it happens? And how will we recalibrate operations under a new normal?

The intensity of our protracted response is leading to sustainability factors Chief Procurement Officers will have to resolve:

  • Individual Staff Sustainability: We will need essential staff for the long run. Retirements, mental health days, and, of course, the risk of exposure will require us to assess how to leverage staff without individual burnout.
  • Reinforced Team Dynamics: With a staff distributed into remote work managing highly urgent needs, how do we keep acting as a team rather than individuals connected by an email address?
  • Contract Portfolio Risks: Our standard contracts have been deprioritized due to urgent demands of response. But these will need to be given staff priority weight again so that these deferred responsibilities do not become the next crisis.
  • Capturing Change: Change is everywhere today in procurement offices. Are these changes temporary or systematic? How will we roll back the changes that were temporary and extend changes that should be made permanent?

View this framework approach to assist procurement officers to overlay a level of control while leading their teams through this long-lasting, but eventually ending, period of response.