Collect requests, collaborate with stakeholders, and manage approvals
Get to market faster with access to thousands of sample projects
Create bids, invite vendors, and get results quickly
Engage internal collaborators to score RFx projects
Stay on top of milestones and vendor performance
Access award-winning coaching and support
Innovation | 37 minutes
Creativity in procurement — to some, it might not sound attainable.
After all, there are strict sets of rules and regulations that guide public procurement practices, and as a buyer, you don’t want to be responsible for your agency becoming the subject of a news headline.
But Darren Tompkins, Manager of Purchasing at City of Kelowna, believes that creativity is integral to maximizing the effectiveness of procurement. Creative thinking in procurement doesn’t need to come at the expense of compliance; in fact, it’s crucial to attaining the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.
Want to connect with Darren on the topics covered on this episode of Inside Public Procurement? Email him at [email protected].
You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to Inside Public Procurement on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or gobonfire.com/podcast.
Listening on a desktop & can’t see the links? Just search for Inside Public Procurement in your favorite podcast player.
Darren Tompkins | City of Kelowna
You’re listening to Inside Public Procurement by Bonfire. A show celebrating the unique stories and heroic efforts of those on the front lines of public procurement. Each episode, we bring you the latest trends, tips, and real stories from procurement trailblazers like you, who work tirelessly to bring positive impact to the agencies and communities you serve. Together, let’s elevate the field of public procurement to new heights. Now, pull up a chair and let’s gather around the Bonfire. Our show is about to begin.
Hello and welcome to the Inside Public Procurement podcast. My name is Tuong La. And I am a client support agent over at Bonfire, an e-procurement solution used by over 450 public agencies in North America. I’m joined today by Darren Tompkins who’s the purchasing manager over at City of Kelowna. Darren became a professional purchaser for the Vernon School District in 2001. In 2010, he moved to Metro Vancouver to work with the Vancouver School Board. There he supervised the purchasing team until 2017 when he accepted the purchasing manager position with the City of Kelowna. Darren is passionate about public procurement and pursuing excellence. He believes in striving for win-win solutions that benefit his employer and also the contractors they work with. Hello, Darren.
Good morning. Good afternoon.
Darren, it sounds like you have quite a story career here?
Well, public sector for a long period of time and it is a unique working environment when you compare it to some of the private sector counterparts that we have out there in the profession.
Sure. Darren, before we get into the world of procurement, I want to know a little bit more about yourself? And we are in the middle of summer right now, it’s August as of this recording, what are the big summer plans you have left to take advantage of this weather?
Well, one of the challenges we’ve had in the Southern Interior BC this year has been a lot of wildfires. So there has been a lot of smoke and it’s been dampening the fun that we normally see in summertime. So that’s a bit of a drag. But we’re doing the best we can and hopefully we’ll see this through and get the fires under control and get back to some clear skies so we can enjoy the rest of summertime.
Absolutely. You’re a positive guy, Darren, we’ve talked a lot in the past already. How do you keep positive in a place that’s just smokey all the time? What do you do that say, “Forget this smoke, I want to live my best life.” What do you do?
It is, it can be a bit challenging. I think the comradery of a bit of commiserating with others out there about the smoke and complaining, it’s almost like its own community, right? Let’s all complain together. But usually the best you can hopefully you’ve got some air conditioning and can hide away from the smoke and make the best of it maybe burn up the Netflix or something like that.
That’s right. So, Darren, we’ve kind of already touched in your bio about a little bit of your career already. But I’m curious, how did you even get into procurement? A lot of people don’t even know what procurement is until they end up in a job in procurement. Tell me a little bit about that journey? Where you are today? And what you do at your organization?
Right. So I’m probably not dissimilar to a lot that have found themselves in a procurement profession. When I was working for the Vernon School Board, I was actually working outside as a groundskeeper and so this sounds like a very odd path to a purchasing position. But I had been taking some accounting courses and had been working doing some bookkeeping for certain groups outside of my employment. And there was an opportunity that came up at my employer and a purchasing position was open. And I was quite intrigued by the variety of tasks that were done by this position. And so put my name in and was successful in candidating for that job.
And once in the position, the employer was encouraging to help support me in my formal education along that path. So I worked along that doing distance education. I had a young family at the time and so it took me a little bit longer than maybe a fresh out of college student might’ve taken to do the education part of it. But I finally got that and really had kind of run my career where I was at the small school district that I was working at and needed to get to a larger employer, to get more upward mobility, some opportunities of career growth.
So I went to Vancouver and worked down there for seven years and got the opportunity to come back to the interior of BC, working as purchasing manager for the City of Kelowna. And so it was a tremendous opportunity to come back to where mainly I had lived in the area for years and really have an opportunity to make an impact on the team and really normalize operations that was a scenario. Where we were at there was some instabilities going on and so I was kind of brought in maybe a little bit of a relief pitcher to kind of help out on things. And so building the team and working that way.
Today in the city, we buy a wide variety of things by dollars, a lot of our spend is on construction as we’re building infrastructure in the city. But the city has a wide variety of services we provide from having a burial, a funeral division. We have the largest civic airport in Canada that belongs to the city, which is international, which of course is struggling right now because there is no international flights to our airport. But we have water treatment and all the utilities, fire services and parks and recreation and all of the things that a municipal government provides.
So it’s a really wide range of goods and services that we acquire on an annual basis. And that’s one of the things I do find intriguing about the job. Just when you figure you’ve kind of got it all under your belt and you’ve seen it all, something else comes along and you’re buying maybe something for one of our areas it’s like, okay, that’s unique.
It sounds like you do quite a lot for the City of Kelowna, that’s incredible. We’ve identified a couple of questions and this will kind of bleed into what you were just talking about here. But you’re talking about how things have kind of shifted and changed and that’s really interesting with procurement that it is just kind of an ever evolving job. And for yourself here, how do you leverage resources in your organizations to its greatest potential?
Well, in trying to maximize our effectiveness corporately, there are several things. I mean, a good strategy for your procurements is helpful, using the best suited procurement methods, using digital tools to facilitate the what’s now kind of almost standard, but really you just a few years ago, we didn’t see as much working from home, but having the ability to access the platforms anywhere, anytime is certainly important. And then growing the knowledge and expertise of the team working for you is another way to get to a place of really maximizing what you can achieve for your employer.
I do find that there’s always a struggle within a purchasing area where there’s the transaction volume that you often will deal with, and so that’s very transactional in nature and takes up effort and time. And you really want to get your buying team using their critical thinking skills and adding value to everything they touch. So trying to automate as many of the low-value transactional type things is as you can maybe using P-Cards or standing orders with certain suppliers for low value repetitive spend. And then really get your buyers immersed in the files they’re working on the procurements, getting good long-term agreements with suppliers to provide what we’re looking for and really leveraging their expertise in that manner and not just using them as processors as it were.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. We touched on before too, the aspect of being creative in the procurement space, did you want to touch on that a little bit?
Yeah, I think it’s an area where we can leverage that critical thinking and creativity that can be brought forward to our profession. I know in a lot of organizations including ours, there is an efficiency that’s built into a repertoire that you would build as kind of here’s our standard offering, here’s what we do as a standard package and that may work much of the time. But I think there are times where if you’re trying to fit that square peg into a round hole, you need to be a little more creative, you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve as an outcome rather than just saying this is what we do and we just try to make everything fit into what we do.
So when we talk about procurements and using a selection process that’s best suited to what you’re trying to buy. One example there is when you’re buying professional services and you’re buying really knowledge, using a RFP or a price-based tender often is not we find the best way to go. Just as if you were going out personally, trying to get some medical advice or some medical services done you may not, although you may be tempted to look for the lowest price, the lowest price when it comes to your health is probably not the best way to go.
And likewise, when you’re buying knowledge, when you’re buying expertise, whether it be through engineering or other disciplines where they have professional services, you really want to engage with the service provider that can really provide the best outcomes for you. Now, of course, there’s always an affordability ceiling there. So it’s not sky is the limit, we can just afford anything. So we’ve been using a selection process that is a quality-based selection where there is no price competition, but there’s a competition.
It’s almost like a resume-based selection where we describe the work that needs to be done and the outcomes. And the professionals will basically provide us their resume and why they feel they should be the best ones to provide those services for us. Then we have a negotiation phase for final product delivery or solution delivery contract that we come up with. So incorporating selection processes that are not just price-based really is something that needs to be explored because it can be better suited to a better outcome.
Creativity in the procurement space it’s such an interesting topic because there sometimes feels like there’s not much room for creativity because a lot of times in public procurement, you kind of have to fall within a set of rules. But what you just talked about is that there is a little bit of a sandbox you can play with in that set of rules, right? And I guess how do you inspire your team to also kind of think outside the box and be creative in this space and you’re mentoring them to make critical thinking decisions and also inspire them to be creative?
Right. As you know, there are a lot of regulations that public purchasing has to follow. In Canada, we have several trade agreements across the country that require certain obligations of public entities when we spend a certain amount of money. I think in instilling a sense of creativity and critical thinking on the process and the methodologies we use in the procurements at times some of that can be inspired by leading by example, by supporting individuals on the team that come up with a creative solution to say, well, let’s try that, let’s go ahead.
Now I think in risk mitigation, that’s another area to look at as well. There may be times you can try a certain approach because risks are not that large in a particular area, maybe the dollar spend is lower or there’s other mitigating factors there. So you may make a decision and try or pilot something. And I encourage a lot of our team and others as I speak to counterparts in this profession. And I say one of the better ways I think to kind of coach and get buy-in with either your own internal clients or others is to frame it as though you’re doing a pilot, try it once and see what happens, right?
I mean, all of us, I think probably can think back through our careers and think about something that didn’t go well. And many times those are the ones we learn the most from are the ones that really didn’t go well or went sideways from day one. And even if it just teaches you not to repeat certain things it’s a good lesson learned. And it builds that experience level, which is really critical for building the next generation of purchasing professionals but we want them to be open to looking at creativity.
I think the one thing that does maybe produce a little bit of hesitation in the profession when we talk about creativity is the thoughts of kind of throwing out all the rules. And it’s like we’re just going to go off on a tangent and not meet our obligations. I think one of those things that we need to satisfy is transparency in our process. So you almost could do anything, there are some limitations to that. But within a procurement, you can do a lot of things, but you need to say what you’re going to do ahead of time and it needs to be in your document.
And then when you go through the process, you need to follow and do what you said you were going to do. Now that’s not guaranteed to work for absolutely anything or everything, but it’s a good principle to follow that you be fully disclosed in what going to do and plan it ahead of time. This making it up as we go along thing is probably a recipe for a slippery slope. And it’s like, “Oh, man, that could be a little riskier approach to just kind of make it up as you go along.”
Sure. Some people are afraid that when you introduce, you kind of just mentioned this, but I would say some organizations are afraid of change or are afraid to go through with a new process because they don’t want to wipe the slate clean. It’s kind of this has been working in the past, it works good enough and they kind of leave it at that. But when that happens, there’s not a lot of room for innovation and we’ve already touched on how procurement is this ever evolving profession. So if you’re not willing to change you might be stuck and it might be too late to change in some cases, right?
Yeah, true. One of the things that I do have found in my experience as well is when we have come up with a new approach or we want to try something that we hadn’t done previously here before, and it turns out fairly successful, one of the I guess intuitive things that we get from our clients is that once we’ve tried something new, it’s like, well, that new thing is the only thing we do now and it’s just not so. I mean, it’s adding an additional option to our tool belt, but we may leverage this if the opportunity is correct.
I know one of the things I keep working with our internal clients on is that the traditional price-based solicitations and tenders that go out there, we still have a place when you have a very specific need that you just need to buy this and you need a price competition on it is that when we’re talking about competing we can compete on other factors not just the price, and that’s the same thing with the quality-based selection. The trade agreements which provide a lot of regulation and guidance to public sector requires there to be a competition, it doesn’t necessarily say it has to be a price competition.
But that is traditionally just where we’ve been and gone through is that well you just compete on price. But I do encourage our internal clients to think about going beyond just a price selection. And at times we don’t necessarily have the internal expertise to describe in fact what we want to buy or what we need to address a problem. And so in an RFP request for proposal scenario, I encourage our teams to think about presenting a problem rather than presenting the solution. Let the marketplace, which are the experts in this area present a solution to you, present how you’d like to see as an outcome or present the problem and ask them for answers.
And so that’s a fairly significant shift in culture within the organization. I know it is in our organization because anyone that thinks about what they need they automatically go to, well, I’m going to look and I’m going to buy this. This is going to fix what I need or provide what we need to, and in some cases, that’s true. Other times maybe we ought to be presenting a problem that the marketplace can provide a solution for.
And that’s really where an RFP can produce innovative solutions to something where you might have locked it down and bolted down your specifications and said you have to provide this. And it must be this way, it must be that way, well, now the marketplace can’t provide. When we talk about technology, that’s a fast-paced sector up there. By the time you build a specification for anything technical, it’s probably outdated. So you’re probably better off suggesting or presenting your problem or your issue or your need rather than the solution. Don’t tell them how to do it, tell them what you need it to do and they can tell you. So there’s lots of room for opportunities there, but it takes a mind shift and it takes potentially running a few of these to trial them out. Like I talked about a pilot, try some.
I think a lot of organizations have different thresholds on how long they’d let a pilot go for. My question to you really is how long will you let an idea run for before you’re like you know what? Maybe this isn’t working that’s okay, we tried and that’s really good, but we should just probably shift to something else now?
Well, it would really depend on the outcomes. So say there was a new methodology we wanted to try in procurement and once the procurement is done, it’s always good to have some kind of a post-mortem after you’ve run the procurement. Were there any lessons learned? Can you improve on process? I think that should really be a guide. If something was marginally successful and you had some good takeaway lessons you might adjust and run that same process again with a new opportunity and see if you can improve on that. If things didn’t land well and it was problematic and you couldn’t really see a way pass some of those hurdles that you experienced through that pilot, you can just chalk it up as a lesson learned and maybe the next time it comes back, it looks a little bit different or you approach it in a different mean.
So it’s really about that feedback loop again, right? That you’re looking at what you did and was it successful? Did it achieve good results? And kind of let that guide you whether or not you can keep trying it. And maybe if you tweak it as you build it out, like I mentioned, the QBS approach for professional services, we’ve been using that now for a couple of years. And so it did take a little bit of refining and smoothing off the rough edges of that process to get it down. And even the marketplace, anytime you introduce anything new, your bidders may be unprepared for what you’re asking. They may not know how to even respond.
So you maybe beneficial for you to have an information session that you provide to the vendor community, or a longer time that it’s out to as an open competition. It’s a building process and as public buyers, we don’t operate in a vacuum, we use the marketplace, contractors, suppliers, and good suppliers, all of that. It’s all of those suppliers out there and so keeping them informed with how to do business with us and how we do things is really good.
And one of the things I know just using their platform Bonfire for us it has brought a lot of consistency to the process and the mechanism of doing the bids. It was adopted fairly well by our bidding community. And so once you build on those successes that it does build a little more confidence, that you can try newer things as well and demonstrate how it works. I think one feedback, and when talking about feedback loops, one thing that I think is critical in our procuring world is the debriefings that we provide in the public sector after someone has been not successful in a bid.
And generally speaking, it’s giving them some guidance on where their relativity sat on different aspects of their bid submission and how it was scored in relation to others, whether it be positive or negative, where there’s areas of growth. And so those feedback loops are important because we want to build more competent bidders out there. We want to encourage competition and we want to elevate their game as well. And we’d love to hear from them if there was something problematic about our process. If you don’t ask in your debriefings if the owner has done anything that could have been improved, we certainly need to hear that feedback as well so that we again continually refine and improve and evolve the processes.
That’s really interesting because I feel like there’s many organizations out there that don’t give feedback to their bidders. They would award whoever let’s just say the best price. They award that vendor, they will reach out to that vendor and then everyone else is kind of maybe left in the dark a little bit. How do you really reach out to these bidders? Or how does that process even work?
So when it comes to a price-only selection at a certain dollar threshold, which we’re required by trade agreements, we actually publish the prices on our platform that we have to use here in BC, which is the BC bid platform so other bidders can see what the winning bid was and the other bid prices. But when it comes to a selection process that has something other than price, so it’s got qualitative assessment, we have within our documented the invitation to reach out to us within 30 days of close and final decision on a selection to ask for a debriefing.
Now, actually part of the regulations, the trade agreements that we follow, there’s the seat with the economic the European Union actually requires a fair bit of disclosure and requirements for us to provide a debriefing. So it’s actually required of a public agency of certain dollar values to provide a debriefing. But even beyond that, what we’re required to do it’s a good practice, it’s a good practice to do this. So we have it in our document. We don’t necessarily reach out to bidders specifically, we hope they read our documents and they see that’s an option for them to request one.
But if we do get a follow-up email or a call after the fact would say, well, you do have the opportunity for a debriefing, you can sit down and go through the positives and the challenges that we saw within your submission so you can do a better job next time. And hopefully bidders are asking to improve their chances in the future and that hopefully public sectors is required to at a certain dollar value. But I think any of those relationships, even if you’re in the private sector, the private sector has a lot of good working relationships with their suppliers. And so that connection, I think, is again, reinforced when in the public side of things when we can provide additional understanding and clarity to where someone in participating in these procurement processes and bidding where did we land? Are we second place?
Sometimes I find in providing a debriefing I’m not sure if it’s better to have been second place, you knew you were close or was it better to be way off and you didn’t have any chance. I think probably still knowing that you’re in the market and you’re playing well, it’s probably better to know that you were second place. But we always have more unsuccessful than successful, so it’s a bit of one of those things where you have to kind of break the bad news. You were close, but sorry, it wasn’t there maybe in your team’s experience or maybe in the pricing was not as aggressive as some of the other proposals, maybe it wasn’t as clear here in these areas, you didn’t provide this type of a solution or there was superior solution from another. So it’s all part of working together.
Well, I think that clarity really helps a lot of vendors who maybe thought they deserve to win the bid and win the award, but they were missing some pieces that they were not aware of before. And like you said, creating stronger bidders really just helps everyone, right? I mean, the competition grows within the vendors and them telling you feedback as well helps you to refine your own processes. So I think it’s definitely like a win-win situation when you give them the option to provide and receive feedback?
The last point that I want to touch on today is we kind of been dancing around the topic, but we haven’t really identified it, which is the idea of social procurement. So, Darren, can you tell me what that even is? And it will identify and kind of give the definition of it and we’ll go from there?
Well, I would not be surprised if there was not more than one kind of working definition of that, and it is kind of a hot button topic currently. It’s very topical right now. And a lot of public sector entities are looking to see how they can leverage their spend in a way that not only meets the needs of the entity, the buyer, but also produces additional benefits within their communities socially? That could be working with suppliers that have a diverse workforce. It could be working with suppliers that have intellectually-challenged individuals working on their workforce as well. And so it can be working with other ordinary represented groups within the demographic out there.
And so really advancing social causes within what we’re already doing is we’re spending money. And we want to encourage whether it be environmental impacts, reducing those using caterers that use fewer or no single-use plastic serving products, and so that’s more on the environmental side. The social side is more about looking at the effects on people in underrepresented groups. How can we get them to participate more in the active economy? Indigenous groups as well? How is that? Can that be used to promote reconciliation amongst communities?
And so the social procurement is one that is our professions kind of grappling with right now. How do you qualify? How do you assess someone’s ability to provide these things? Now in the public space because of the regulations that we have, there are under dollar thresholds that exist. So over a certain dollar threshold, we need to go public and compete. But below those dollar thresholds, we can actually direct award low value contracts. And so that’s likely the area where we can kind of cut our teeth if it were on this subject and try some direct awards with local social agencies or social enterprises that provide services that you need, obviously, but that also provide a community benefit or impact in some way, that way for those communities that need additional representation in the workforce.
And it may not be simply that either this is a very expansive topic, it’s kind of new in developing. And some larger municipalities across the country have been successful in these types of areas and getting additional criteria within their bids and they’re moving the dial on this. And I think some of the smaller entities like even where we are in the City of Kelowna, we are interested in moving the dial locally on these issues and where can we make an impact? So it is an evolving topic itself right now this one. And if you hadn’t heard about it, it’s certainly something you’ll likely hear about and how can we work within the confines of the constraints that we have in regulation and even maybe our own internal policies? And I think that’s where the conversation needs to happen internally.
And there needs to be an elevation of a topic itself, more recognition and an approach even getting some small steps, doing some things. I’ve heard of counterparts out there that have awarded to agencies that do some of their civic cleanups around different areas of cleanup and just hiring them directly and it produces such a good benefit. So I think it’s an opportunity area, it’s not without some challenges to try to maneuver and figure out how this works. But it’s an area where, of course we talked about creativity, we talked about mentoring staff and using critical thinking. Now, if there was ever an area that needs that and needs the community of procurement to come together to support each other and see what works and who is making success in this area and building off of that, this is one of those exact scenarios coming together right now.
Social procurement, I feel like we can have a whole podcast on just this alone because it’s such a loaded topic. But maybe because it is so young and you’ve been in the procurement space for a number of years now, but would you say the idea of social procurement really only started popping up to the forefront in the last few years?
More progressive owners, entities have likely been doing some of this for a very long time. I think once anything gains a little bit more political notoriety, it becomes the topic on the evening news. And local elected politicians and elected officials are raising it as a topic. And I think anyone across North America has seen inner cities and scenarios where there are challenging conditions. And a lot of municipal governments are being asked to do something and to try to impact these things and they’re complex issues. And so this is just part of a scenario.
So it’s raised the awareness of it and the motivation by political and elected officials they’re pointing to the purchasing folks and saying you lead us. We want you to do better in leveraging the spend that we have and impacting positively our communities, what can you do the social procurement? How can you impact and address some of these things and as we said to kind of move the dial? So it is a loaded subject and I agree it could probably be its own podcast for sure, and more maybe a series?
Maybe a series, that’s right, a six-part series. Well, it definitely sounds like a complex issue that’s worth solving for the benefit of the entire communities. So I love that. All right. Darren, well, there’s one last question I like to ask you before we wrap things up. And if there’s one piece of advice you’d like to share with everyone listening today what would that be?
I would share that I hope all of you feel as though you can make a difference? And for me that’s what probably motivates me day after day is thinking that I can make a difference and that I can make something better for someone that’s supporting my employer, those that are working and trying to achieve projects within. And so I think coming to work, we say work, but if you really love what you’re doing it’s less of a job. But really making a difference and try to find that space. If you’re not feeling as though you’re making a difference right now, find a space where you can be an influencer and a champion and make a difference. And hopefully you find that inspiring and that it fuels your fire to kind of take on more and to be that change, to be that influencer in your institution and your group, or even just amongst your team or your coworkers.
Well, Darren, I feel inspired already by the words you said. Well, thank you so much for joining me here today. It’s very clear that you have this vast knowledge to share with the people and we’re so happy that you spent a little bit of time with us to share that with us. Is there any way for the people at home or who are listening to get in touch with you if they’d like too?
Yeah, I mean, I would accept an email from anyone curious or wanting to reach out. I do find that reaching out and peer sharing is really a great community, a community of practice, right? Connecting with others that might have expertise or experiences that you’d like to leverage from. And so hopefully even if you don’t have that now you could look for a peer group within your area to connect with maybe it’s by a different regional area or by a different type of employer group. But those are great to have communities of practice where you can reach out. So you can just email me at [email protected] and that’s [email protected]
Perfect. Well, thanks so much again, Darren. I hopefully you get to step outside in a world that it’s not smokey and you can get out of your Netflix binge that you’ve been on and just enjoy the outdoors. But until then, we’ll talk to you later and thank you everyone for listening today.
Bye. Take care.
Procurement professionals like you are the lifeblood of public sector organizations dedicated not only to supporting your agency, but the constituents you serve. That’s why we’ve created the inside public procurement podcast here at Bonfire, a unique place where you can share stories and discuss the topics that matter to public procurement pros from digitization and the future of public procurement to ensuring a fair and transparent process, we’re all about finding new strategies to help your agency succeed. Join us at gobonfire.com to learn more.
You’ve been listening to Inside Public Procurement by Bonfire. If you like what you’ve heard, make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. And if you have an idea for an episode or want to come on as a guest email us at [email protected] Thanks for tuning in. We’ll see you next time.
Discover more insights on how your procurement peers are navigating new strategies and priorities this year.