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Cooperative Bids | 29 minutes
In public procurement, spending taxpayer money responsibly is incredibly important. Cooperative bids, or coops, are a great way to accomplish that. But how do you show the value of the procurement strategy you have in place? That’s where transparent reporting comes in.
In this episode, we’re joined by Jennifer Frates who is the Chief Procurement Officer for Barnstable County and the President of Cape Cod Association of Public Procurement Officials (CCAPPO). She talks about the benefits of transparency and cooperative purchasing.
Reach out to Jennifer at [email protected].
You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to Inside Public Procurement on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.
Jennifer Frates | Barnstable County
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 Inside Public Procurement Podcast. My name is Rachel Friesen and I am the Director of Client Experience at Bonfire, an eProcurement solution used by over 450 public agencies in North America. I’m joined by Jennifer Frates, CPO at Barnstable County. Thank you so much for joining me today, Jennifer.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Of course. So, before we get started, I have to ask, what are you most looking forward to in a post COVID world?
So, besides just being able to go outside and just see people again in person, I’m actually excited to see what this world is going to look like post COVID. We’ve learned a lot of things, even just at work, home, that we can have a good time at home. From a personal level, there’s plenty of things that we can entertain ourselves with, and then at work, technology is huge and we can be so much more efficient in so many different ways with the use of technology. I think COVID was a horrible, horrible thing, obviously, but there is such a silver lining and I am excited to see the world that we’re going to be living in post-pandemic.
Yeah, definitely. That was a very thoughtful answer. It is a nice… What’s the word? The largest scale lived, shared experience in a way. So, we all have that in common, no matter where you are in the world. But also just to start off too, are you able to share with myself and the listeners how you ended up in Procurement? Everyone’s path is a little bit different. Some are more intentional than others.
It’s funny, because it’s always one of those jokes or memes like there’s a five-year-old that says, “I’m going to be a CPO when I grow up.” Like everybody else, I think mostly, and in Procurement, it just becomes something that you literally fall into. I’m going to go way back to the beginning. I started as a political science major. I wanted to get into politics, into government, into the public sector. I enjoyed helping people and the challenges that come from the public sector, it was just fun to me. I was working for a mayor at the time and it was rumored that he was going to get a position as a judge. So I’m like, okay, now what do I do? I need to find a new position. I had a natural knack for [inaudible 00:03:15] finance and that sort of thing. So, it was actually a department head from another department.
It was the auditor at the time. He said, “You should really go for that purchasing job. There’s a job in purchasing that’s open. You should go for it.” And I’m like, “I’m going to buy things?” Cool. All right. [inaudible 00:03:33]. Why not? So, I say the rest is history, and it really is. I just instantly fell in love with the everyday challenge. I feel like even in 15 years in Procurement every day is a different day. So, I started in purchasing with the city of New Bedford in Massachusetts, and my boss at the time she was the purchasing agent. She was the one that took me under her wing and mentored me to give me the foundation of what Procurement is all about. So, in the public sector, of course we have certain laws that we need to abide by.
So my first few years with the city, it was definitely… Okay, is this against the law? Is this compliant? What do we have to do? Everything’s very transactional as I’d like to say. From there, there was an opportunity to go to a neighboring town. So, the town of Dartmouth with the DPW at the time. So, that was just another view of, I went into a more decentralized system of purchasing Procurement. So with that, that just basically means we didn’t have a purchasing department. We did our own. It got me more into the weeds of, what does it take for a scope or specifications? I was used to just getting that handed over to me. Now you have to be part of the team that puts it together. This is harder than I thought.
I just want to put in some front end documents and send it out to bid. I know what to do there. It definitely was a learning experience and it was nice to see what project managers have to go through in order to be able to put a scope and specifications together. That gave me that formal training. From there, I really knew that I wanted to continue with Procurement. I wanted to really advance my career and learn more and get more into what we’ve seen more in the private sector than in the public sector, which is a more strategic, data driven, just a lot more sourcing that goes on than in the public sector. Again, very transactional decisions are just made.
Are we good? Are we not? And that’s it. They’re not always looking for different cost savings and opportunities and things like that. They try to, but there’s only so much that you can do with some of the resources you have, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. So, from there I went to UMass Dartmouth and I was introduced to Bonfire at that point, and I was beyond amazed. Then I’m like, wait a minute. I don’t have to have a bid in person?
All these bids and proposals. Now I have time to do other things. I can now pull up reports. What are we spending our money on? Where is it going? What vendors are we frequently buying from? Different things like that. It opened up. We still have the same amount of hours in a day, but now we’re able to not do so much of the clerical compliance work that we had to do, and now we can do some of these fun things. So then from there, UMass centralized their procurement services and I would have had to end up commuting an hour and a half away, which being young and having kids, that just wasn’t going to be possible.
So, I was very lucky that an opening came up to Barnstable county to be their chief procurement officer. So I’ve been doing that now for two years. Yeah. And that’s where I am today. So I’ve been able to kind of take that transactional, like, yes, we have to abide by the law and, and do all that. But let’s do some of this fun stuff and see how we can consolidate and make more data driven decisions and things like that.
It is nice to see that there’s this natural compound with each of your roles that led to your current scope. So the evolution was quite logical. Do you think, you mentioned later on in your career, data and more strategy became motivational to you, is what motivated you to get into government the same as what’s motivated you to stay in government or has that shifted for you?
I think so. It kind of shifted in the way that I always thought or imagined that I would be an elected official or that I would be a legislator, legislative aide for an elected official, but now I’m behind the scenes, but I don’t think people even realize that I’m providing a service that’s probably just as important as any elected official. They’re making decisions, I’m helping them. They’re the decision makers at the end of the day, a lot of elected officials and whatnot, I basically help provide not only the compliance, obviously that’s important, but now I have data and reporting and with that, they can make better decisions, which is nice. So try and find different locations on where they can allocate funds, and save money, and show that they’re providing different services for their constituents based on some of the savings that we’ve made. So I feel like I’m still contributing just in a background sort of way.
Very much so. And I know you ended off with your explanation of how you ended up in purchasing a Procurement, I should say with your new role or not new even, two years at Barnstable. Are you willing to share a little bit more about your county and your agency?
So, so Barnstable county is otherwise known as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Prime vacation spot during the summer months. It is, it’s a beautiful place. Definitely go there often. I live actually off Cape, but it’s close enough that I go there frequently, but so it consists of 15 different towns. And most of them are a very similar structure to when I worked for the town of Dartmouth nearby. They don’t have dedicated purchasing staff. Sometimes it’s the town administrator that has that role, but it’s not their dedicated role. Obviously they have other things that they need to do. Sometimes it’s a random admin in the DPW that does the bidding and the purchasing. So it’s not her everyday job or his everyday job type of thing. So I become kind of that central consultant for many things. What do I do? Do [inaudible 00:10:16] for this?
Do I need to do that? Again, that goes to the compliance thing, but I also offer as part of our county government services, cooperative contracts. So we have, for example, all the summer road work, make sure all the roads are very nice for our tourists and whatnot. Make sure that everything’s paved, the potholes are filled. All the DPW directors are going to have roadway construction items that they need to bid out on an annual basis. So we collectively put out a bid together. We get a couple of vendors depending on the items and now they can just buy and do their projects and they don’t have to worry about the whole procurement process because as we know, if that’s not your everyday job it could be a lot and it can be stressful. And that’s where kind of I come in and I present them with a nice little contract, go ahead, go spend away, let your finance director worry about the money portion of it, but at least.
And with that we’ve kind of done some other things. So like fuel is a big one. Gasoline diesel, elevator maintenance is another one that we do, the golf courses. They all obviously buy the same products. So we decided to kind of aggregate their volume and see if we can get some drive down some costs for them if they’re buying in bulk and whatnot. And if two neighboring golf courses are buying the same products, why not, get a little discount with that as well. Again, I’m sure we’ll probably talk about this later. But one of the things that Bonfire has allowed me to do is we always had the set annual bids that we did every year and that my predecessor did forever, and ever, and ever. Now I find that I have a little bit extra time on my hands, cause I’m not scanning documents and putting together spreadsheets.
So now I can kind of get all the 15 towns together and say, “Okay, what are you going out to bid for?” Well, they’re going out to bid for that too, and so was that one. So let’s do another cooperative bid and that’ll save them time. Now each town doesn’t have to go do their own thing. It can all be done in one. And I think that’ll just open up a lot more time, even in their day, for them to be able to do kind of what their primary jobs are because Procurement is usually a secondary.
I know you touched today on compliance, but previously in our conversation, you mentioned the importance of transparency too. And so why do you think transparency is so important to public sector as a whole, but to yourself too.
I mean, to myself, there’s nothing more important to me than to show my value. So, as I’ve been keeping track of our bids and reporting and things like that, I’m able to show what we’ve spent our money on, where our savings are. That gives taxpayers constituents a look at, “Oh, okay. So this is what they’re getting. This is how they’re spending our money essentially. And it’s going towards this project or that road and that way”. And there’s a value. So selfishly, I want to show “These are the savings that I got you”, and the taxpayer at the same time can now look at it and be confident or should feel confident that we’re spending their money responsibly. It’s not, even though I’m a taxpayer as well, it’s not just my money, it’s not my pool of money to do what I wish with it. That would be an easy, great world, but that’s not the public sector. We have a lot of people we need to represent essentially.
Very true. There’s that true layer of accountability. That’s great. And then we’ve actually, I loved your anecdote, sharing how you would work towards a cooperative purchase with the various counties and towns within the county. Maybe this is the example you wanted to draw on, but there’s always this question we like to add into these podcast sessions, which is more or less like what something everyone is trying to do that you’ve discovered a better way to do. And maybe there’s been a few of them. I don’t know what stood out to you?
Yeah. So one of the things, and I think I answered it too. It’s putting these kinds of efficiencies in place and cooperative bids is one of them. Why have three or four different towns working on the same exact thing? It’s like recreating the wheel. Let’s just put it all together. I can spend a few hours putting it out to bid. Everyone will review it and we’re done. You know, this is just another way of spending taxpayer money responsibly. And this way we can present, That person would have had to spend a whole day putting this out to bid. That one would have been X hours and X dollars to put theirs out to bid. Now we’re doing it much more responsibly. And with that, I think I actually had that particular issue come up. People retire, people leave, positions aren’t always filled.
So, if someone used to go out to bid for this sort of thing, the new person might not know or understand if there’s already a cooperative contract in place, they’re all set and they’re good to go. We had a town recently that they wanted to do their own thing. I think it was for water chemicals. They want to do their own thing. They didn’t want to be part of the cooperative. That’s no problem. I don’t force anyone. I’m here at your service. If you don’t need me, I don’t lose sleep at night. So that person retired and a new person came in and all of a sudden the new fiscal year started and they didn’t have a contract in place. They didn’t even know there was supposed to go out to bid. They had no idea. If they had just been on the cooperative bid, that new person didn’t have to go into full panic mode and say, “Oh my God, now, what do I do?
I need water chemicals, we’re running out.” So they contacted me and I said, “Well, this year I’ll just put it out to bid for you, cause it’s really just a template. I can put it on Bonfire very easily, send it out there and get responses. And then next year, now that I know, we’ll add you onto the cooperative. So it’s one of those things. The more collaboration and the more involvement from the different towns, that sort of institutional knowledge will have a better chance of staying. So if I knew that the town of Falmouth or whatever town, Bourne or whatnot, if that person leaves, and I know there’s a contract in place, whoever comes in, that’s new, I could say, “You’re all set. You have this, don’t worry about it. Do your day-to-day job.” That sort of thing.
That’s great. I’m glad you were diving into the importance of leveraging co-ops too. We’ve noticed that tone shifting, and by we I mean Bonfire’s client experience team with the agencies we support, like across the U.S. There’s more COVID catalyze necessity. I think for co-ops.
Absolutely. Especially when it came to PPE, everybody was scrambling and we knew we were going to spend over a certain amount. So now you’re going to require quotes or more so a bid. And if we already had a contract in place, which we had a couple of cooperatives that we were able to tap into, right away, of course, everybody ran out of supply quick, but at least you still had that. You didn’t waste time going through a bid process. You already had that contract in place. And it was done. One thing that we were kind of looking into doing, and this would be again, a cooperative, natural disasters.
So for whatever reason, we’re starting to get more and more tornadoes our way randomly. And there was a couple of towns on the Cape, a couple of years ago that were severely impacted. So we talked about, well, how about having a contract in place? Hopefully we don’t need it for on-call tree services. Trees get down. Nobody can get by on that road, DPW, our in-house folks are somewhere else doing other things. If you have a contract in a cooperative already in place, call that vendor up, “Hey, I have this contract I need to do to come out here.”
Exactly. I like that you highlight, cause to your point with a PPE. It’s reactive, but it can really be the most practice that you can do potentially is having those contracts in place.
It’s preparing for worst case scenarios too. Obviously cost and locking in pricing and discounting is great. And probably the primary goal of most cooperatives. But as we saw with COVID, having a contract in place for emergencies is probably just as important and can eventually probably cause extra costs that you didn’t even associate. If you have something already locked in, you’re not going to pay. A supplier can’t just say, “Oh, well you need some PPE, I’m going to charge you $5 a mask.”Do you need it, that contract is in place, you’re going to try and meet whatever you agreed to.
That’s a good point. There’s not that imbalance of power on the behalf of the seller either. That’s great. I think we talked about co-ops for a while, but I wanted to- I went down that rabbit hole. I was curious too. You talked about Bonfire, which I always love when people plug, but it doesn’t have to be tool-wise necessarily. I mean what’s a resource, channel or tool. We talked about channels a bit, but maybe a resourceful tool that you think people aren’t using correctly or to its fullest.
I would say just technology in general. I think in this past year we found that we can do things with technology that probably weren’t being used before. A perfect example is getting together with my 15 towns. COVID really forced everybody to get cameras, to get their laptops because they had to work from home. I was able to see a lot more faces, post COVID than during pre COVID. So with that, we were able to collaborate a lot more, a lot quicker. So now I don’t have to get in my car and drive to it could be a two hour drive sometimes depending on traffic from one end of the Cape to the other. So you’re saving time and mileage. You can quickly just get someone right on the phone and right on camera, just to talk to them quickly about different opportunities or whatever’s going on that you need to talk to them about. Meeting with suppliers, especially, we’re so kind of out there geographically from the state that a lot of our suppliers sometimes will come from Western mass.
They’ll come from Boston. Now we have opportunities and probably better opportunities to meet for kickoff meetings or pre-bid meetings and whatnot, and not take up our entire day or their entire day. So now this goes back to, we can do a lot more with less. So we have technology at our grip. We can have a quick half an hour, one hour meeting that isn’t going to involve a two hour drive each way, that sort of thing. So I think technology, and even now, as people are starting to go back in person, I think we all miss seeing each other, but I’m hoping that that’s one of those efficiencies that we kind of keep a little bit longer because I can’t even begin to talk about the benefits of having the extra time of not having to be in a car.
And quality of life and mental freshness. I’m not going to lie. I’m definitely not too [inaudible 00:22:33], but definitely fresher to just join a meeting at my house as opposed to commuting two hours to join the meeting.
I had a perfect example. I had a training this morning. I kind of talked to you about this with my admins. And this morning I’m still coming up with different ideas and different things that I want to include in the slides. And normally I would have had a one hour commute. So I would have had barely enough time to add to those slides into that presentation. I would have been rushing around then I would have had to go to the conference room, make sure all the technology’s working correctly. So today, remote world that we live in, I woke up, I grabbed my coffee. I came over to the computer, added in all my thoughts and ideas that I had overnight and very calmly got ready. So I looked semi presentable for camera. And then five minutes, popped open the meeting. There’s everybody. I loved it. It’s just so much less stress. And I can’t even begin to say enough great things about remote work of course.
A hundred percent. I hope the tide has shifted, but at the end of the day, when we have leaders like yourself in place, it will shift. It’s just making that, because you’re making it a priority.
Maybe we’ll schedule some in-person things.
Right? A bit of a blend. And it does seem like you have a fantastic team and agency at Barnstable. Is there something that your team has achieved that you’re really proud of as well that you want to highlight?
So one of the things that I would say I’m really proud of is once we’ve realized, again, I go back to COVID because this has been our world, our life for the past year and a half, I would say how quickly we embraced change, because we knew that we’re not going to close the 15 day to slow the growth of COVID like that. To slow the spread. That’s what they were calling it. I already forgot it was supposed to be only 15 days. And then we’re going to be back in the office and it was going to be fine. No, that’s not what happened.
So, I had my supervisor that wanted to do eBidding let’s get that on. We had I.T. That stepped up their game and got all these systems in place for us. Trainings on how to use all the different things. I am just grateful and proud of how everyone embraced what was happening, and it was all hands on deck. Whether it was the towns themselves to go out to all these different bids and communicate all their needs, or internally we had our internal departments. Like I said, that I would not be as successful as I am right now in my role if it weren’t for the team around me, for sure.
I think just even in sharing that, there’s such a sense of strength that your team should-what’s the word, grit and strength. That was that in your team that came out of that time.
We know it, anything could happen and I feel like we can handle it. Definitely. I always worried as we were doing emergency preparedness exercises, like if a hurricane comes, I have zero doubt that we’re going to be fine. We’ll be able to get things in place quickly. We’ll be able to communicate quickly. We all kind of had to deal with technology, even when it wasn’t working, but we still found ways of making it work and making it happen. It was just nice to see how we interacted.
That’s great. And there’s one final question that we like to ask as well. So what is the number one piece of advice you’d give to people starting their career in public procurement?
Be open to change. Every day is a different day and a different challenge. I have found that in procurement, if I were still doing today, some of the things that I was doing back when I first started, you’re never going to grow, you’re never going to get better, you’re never going to strategically have better opportunities and cost savings for your stakeholders essentially. So I would say, always go with the flow and change and embrace technology. It’ll help you definitely along the way. So, that’s my biggest piece of advice, don’t say no to change.
That’s great. Well, that’s evident in how you’ve lived out your career, so it’s great to see that you would recommend that too. I wanted to thank you so much for your time Jennifer. And then on that note, too, if you’re comfortable, how could listeners get in contact with you if they wanted to learn more? Is there an email or a LinkedIn that you’re comfortable sharing?
So best email would probably be to contact. I have a generic [email protected] That would definitely be the best place to get in contact with me. Feel free to put in the subject line “I heard you on the Bonfire podcast”, and I will probably talk your ear off on any topic that you would want to talk about. So please feel free. I love it. As you could probably see, I am one of those very odd people and I feel like anybody in Procurement is like this. We love talking about Procurement. Like we love it. So please feel free.
That’s great. Well, I encourage everyone to reach out to Jennifer. And again, thank you so much for your time today. We’ll probably have to bring you back on in the future.
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.
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Want to hear more from Jennifer? Discover how Barnstable County leverages eProcurement to fast-track their cooperative bids.