How to Buy Things—The Role of Procurement in Public Service Delivery

Here’s another “old” post that I’ve finally gotten around to publishing!

Reflecting on the four months that I’ve spent with the Town, I realize that in order to accurately portray my internship yet another blog about government purchasing is warranted. In fact, if I had to draw a “lesson” or “theme” from my summer, it would almost certainly have something to do with purchasing; issues related to “buying things” have permeated a sizable proportion of my work. Surely, this says something about the prominent role of purchasing in municipal operations.

Just so you get a sense of what I’m talking about in terms of my purportedly “exhaustive” exposure to the world of procurement, I’ve done ongoing research into and development of the Town purchasing policy (which, if passed, will serve as the inviolable “ten-or-so commandments” governing all purchasing decisions), and helped to prepare quite a few RFPs (documents used to solicit proposals from companies to do work for the Town), including for the Trails Master Plan, the Repsol Place concession, and the Community Services Strategic Plan.  For a novice to the world of “pretending to be a lawyer,” it proved challenging to wordsmith the necessary contractual obligations, indemnities, etc. that go into a solicitation document. On top of that, there were also the substantive aspects of each specific project to deal with. So it ended up being a reasonable amount of work.

Anyways, here are some of my “big-picture” takeaways on the topic of procurement.

The first “moral of the story” has to do with the sheer range of government functions that are contracted out to third parties. When I came to the Town, I was operating under the naive assumption that most of what we did would be done “in house;” I thought all municipalities had specialists (or generalists) from all manner of disciplines just ready to take on projects as the need arose. I knew that private companies handled big construction projects for governments, but I nevertheless thought that internal planners would always be working on new infrastructure and development plans, a road-building crew would exclusively handle local infrastructure, an in-house assessor would annually review property values, etc. The reality is quite different, though of course internal staff does handle a wide range of important issues. However, the more specialized the project or service, and the less regularly it is required, the less feasible it becomes for a small municipality to employ full-time personnel dedicated to these functions.  

During my work, I was particularly interested in the fact that municipal plans, which seem so central to a community’s evolution, are often drafted by external consultants. When I started my internship and heard whisperings that I would be involved in developing a trails master plan, I thought I would be working with the Planning Department, walking the trails, examining maps, and administering surveys to figure out where to build new trails. In actuality, I helped to build the service standards and performance requirements that a private consultant would abide by when developing the plan.

What does this mean, in broad terms? For me, it meant expanding my conception of “public servants” to include more than just government employees, as private bodies play an important public service role (a fact which may influence my own or others’ career decisions). The strong presence of the private sector also means that the public service is not as monopolistic as some might believe; market competition may promote greater innovation or cost-effectiveness in government. It further demonstrates just how integral good purchasing practices are to good governance. Finally, these dynamics hugely affect public sector decision-making; once a municipality decides on a project or service it wants to undertake, it must not only decide how it will go about implementation, but also whether implementation should be an internal or outsourced responsibility.

. . . Which brings me to my next observation from my purchasing experience, which has to do with how purchasing is done. This part of the blog is a bit more introspective in focus; namely, I found writing RFPs to be an interesting intellectual exercise. In some sense, one must reverse the conventional analytical process, in which you strive to “pin down” the precise answer to a problem and to go from broad problems to specific solutions. Preparing RFPs was the opposite; the aim was to problematize an idea in order to encourage diversity in the proposed solutions. Rather than figuring out precisely what we wanted, it was necessary to think in terms of general principles and abstractions. At the same time, it was vital to navigate that fine line between generality and obscurity; after all, the organization’s needs still had to be clearly (if not rigidly) defined. The paradox is that generalities had to be used precisely; language had to be sufficiently open-ended to encourage innovation within, but not deviation from, the core values/principles that are informing a given project.

As may have been the case with some of my other blogs, perhaps I’m making an issue out of nothing; it may be that thinking in this way is nothing new, and certainly no more difficult or interesting than other cognitive approaches. Nevertheless, I found it compelling. For one, divorcing myself (to an extent) from my specific preconceptions about what a given project or service should be, and instead articulating the type of thing it should be, was mind-opening; I began to think about new approaches that could be applied to meet a given objective and, even more excitingly, I caught one of those rare glimpses into the realm of infinite possibilities, where one truly recognizes that an individual mind is not capable, on its own, of having all the “good ideas”. I like the idea that an RFP is, in some small way, meant to “tap into” this vast reservoir of ideational potential.  Perhaps if people spent more time thinking in terms of general principles rather than attaching themselves so lustfully to one particular way of thinking about an issue, the world would be a more collaborative place. Additionally, thinking of this sort might promote mental clarity/honesty by forcing one to critically appraise one’s own ideas, to boil them down to their fundamental principles and discover what it is that is really wanted. At a less abstract level, this was a different (and therefore more intriguing) approach to buying things than I generally adopt in my everyday life, in that the process didn’t involve tailoring needs around the available product offerings, but rather determining needs independently and allowing the products to come to you.

I recognize that this discussion may have strayed at times from the topic of municipal procurement . . . I also recognize that my own musings will not be generalizable across all purchases, or all people who complete those purchases. Furthermore, RFPs are only one type of solicitation, and are the most open-ended of the lot. In other instances, it is surely much more important (and legally prudent) to be as specific as possible in laying out purchasing needs.

Anyways, what do you think? I don’t have many questions in mind except . . . intuitively, do you favour a greater role for private contractors in municipal service provision, or would a larger pool of full-time staff be preferable; what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach? Any other comments or feedback would be awesome!