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4 public procurement experts share key insights on procurement during COVID-19

September 24, 2020 | Emily Lambert

Procurement professionals wearing masks collaborate on a white board

September 2020 marks about 6 months since COVID-19 first started seriously impacting government agencies across North America. 

In May, Bonfire’s Chief Client & Product Officer, Omar Salaymeh, sat down with public procurement professionals to understand how they were responding in the thick of COVID-19-related purchases, stay at home orders, and supply chain shortages.

How has procurement changed and evolved since? Which pivots are temporary, and which are here to stay? What does the “next normal” of procurement look like? 

To answer these questions, Omar once again gathered procurement experts representing cities, states, school districts, and even public seaport authorities to understand what lessons have been learned these past 6 months, and what a new path forward looks like. Here are just a few of the themes we uncovered in that webinar

Many agencies are still focused on COVID-19 efforts

The dust may have settled from the initial scramble to address emergency response while working from home or with limited staff in the office, but COVID-19-related projects still dominate most public procurement teams’ priority lists. 

For Erik Lueders, Director of Sustainability & Purchasing at Parkway School District, this has meant that a lot of strategic projects that weren’t related to remote learning, PPE, or re-entry have been put on hold. He and his team have had to be reactive to ever-evolving plans on how to return students to school safely; for instance, the start of this school year was originally planned to be in-person, but with a recent spike in COVID cases, schools are now 100% virtual. 

“There continues to be these iterations of important impending deadlines, and with each one of those dates brings on a new set of needs, goods, and services that we need to get in place,” said Erik.

The emergency declaration is still in place for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, according to Wendy Mitchell Brown, who works in contracts management and procurement. Their focus continues to be on purchasing contact tracing software, engaging consultants to help with social media messaging around COVID as well as to help hire contact tracers, and stocking up on PPE. 

Technology implementations are here to stay

The panelists agreed that there have been some benefits realized by the push to implement technology to ensure processes were running smoothly amidst the disruption. Maija Lampinen, Procurement Contracts Manager at the Port of Everett, mentioned that they are in the process of updating their telecommute policy to offer the flexibility to work from home a few days per week. Thanks to the technology implementations pushed over the past several months, the infrastructure is in place to enable those changes.

Technology has also played a critical role in creating a positive vendor experience even as proposal submission and evaluation processes needed to change.

Although the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services never went fully remote, they needed to limit public access to the building. Wendy’s team implemented Bonfire Strategic Sourcing Software to bring their vendor submission process online instead of requiring vendors to come into the office to hand in proposals. She even had an instance where a vendor missed the communication about the change and dropped off a hard-copy submission at the office by mistake. “One of my staff got on the phone with the gentleman and told him what was going on. He actually went to our Bonfire hub page on his smartphone in his pick-up truck, and was able to complete the information and upload all his documents in less than an hour, and was able to successfully bid.”

Maija has also seen how technology has created a positive experience for vendors. “We’ve gone to online bid openings and online pre-bid meetings as much as possible. I’ve gotten very positive feedback from our vendors, suppliers, and contractors. They really like the efficiency of being able to log in from their office, attend a bid opening, and not drive through Seattle traffic to deliver a bid or open it.”

Overcoming supply shortages means embracing a “jack of all trades, master of none” mindset

In our poll of webinar attendees, we found that only 7% of respondents never experienced any supply chain disruptions since the start of COVID—the other 93% had experienced them, and almost half of that portion were still experiencing them. 

For Christine Finney, Materials Manager at the City of Peoria, Arizona, navigating these challenges meant keeping an open mind and remaining nimble as they searched for alternative suppliers. It also meant her team needed to know a little about a lot to identify credible sources. “At my level, I certainly don’t know about sanitizers and what percent alcohol is needed. But we’ve had to make ourselves aware of that and make sure we’re not passing off that responsibility to someone else, because I don’t know who that someone else would be.”

Erik agreed that an important skill for procurement teams right now is a healthy sense of skepticism, and making sure they knew what questions to ask even if they weren’t the subject matter experts in these particular areas. “We had a lot of decentralized purchasing, but with these new categories that these departments weren’t familiar with, we had to re-centralize a lot of purchasing. We needed a certain level of oversight so teachers weren’t just getting a bunch of bleach to use in their classrooms.”

Creative thinking is shifting from optimizing speed to cost savings

There’s no question that public procurement teams have had to think outside the box to get taxpayers the goods and services they need during a pandemic.

“Piggyback” and co-operative contracts have been useful for all the panelists for fulfilling urgent needs quickly over the past 6 months, but there is a general understanding that those are not the most cost-effective option compared to obtaining quotes or running an RFP. “In order to be a strategic partner in our organization, we want to make sure that cost savings is at the front of our mind, but we also look at best-value in everything that we do,” said Christine.

In fact, according to the panelists, procurement’s creative energy has shifted from how to acquire supplies as soon as possible, to taking creative approaches to achieve cost savings for their organization.

Maija at the Port of Everett, for instance, has been re-evaluating existing contracts to discover cost savings opportunities. “We have a laundry service for our walk-off mats. Do they need to be every week? Or can we do that once a month? Are we going to realize a lot of savings there, maybe not, but every little bit of savings helps. It also helps the morale of the staff, realizing they’re making decisions to help benefit the bottom-line.”

These are only a few examples that our panelists provided of ways they are thinking and innovating to prepare for the “next normal” of procurement. To hear even more insights on how procurement teams are innovating and paving a new path forward in the midst of COVID-19, watch the full webinar here.

About the author

Bonfire Blog Author Emily Lambert

Emily Lambert | Bonfire Interactive

As the Content Marketing Strategist at Bonfire, Emily writes thought leadership for procurement teams in the public sector. Best practices content for procurement professionals doesn’t have to be a chore to get through—which is why Emily strives to strike the balance of writing educational yet engaging content that inspires sourcing experts and equips them to make the best purchasing decisions.