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Innovation | 32 minutes
Business as usual just doesn’t cut it anymore. With so much change happening around us, new ideas, tools, and processes are needed to improve the procurement industry.
Amanda Burton, Contract Buyer at Utah Transit Authority, joins the show to share her thoughts on how innovation can move the industry forward.
Topics covered in this episode:
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Amanda Burton | Utah Transit Authority
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 worked 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 the Client Support agent over at Bonfire, an e-procurement solution used by over 450 public agencies in North America. I am joined today by Amanda Burton, a procurement specialist at Utah Transit Authority. She’s been in procurement for 15 years. She’s married and she has a crazy busy nine year old. Hello, Amanda.
Hello? How are you?
I’m good. I don’t have a crazy busy nine year old, I don’t know what that’s like. How is it for you?
He definitely is crazy and busy, having a nine year old child is sometimes hard, but sometimes wonderful. And he keeps me definitely on my toes.
Yeah. So He’s always kind of scurrying about at-home as you’re working kind of thing. At any moment he can be on this recording is what you’re saying?
Luckily he’s with grandma today. I kept them off for this, so you should not hear him, but he normally is underfoot.
No special guest appearance. That’s good.
And usually it’s just a random Fortnite yelling that he wants something.
Yes. Yes. I don’t know, but I just assume every kid that age is just playing that game and yelling at each other from the screen.
It’s true. And then the occasional, “mom I’m hungry.”
Well, he needs the food to eat so he can be powered up to, I don’t even know what you do in that game, to win the game. I guess you like pew pew and shoot other people who play the game and that kind of stuff. Have you played at Amanda? Are you a Fortnite expert now?
I unfortunately have not. I have watched it many times. And as far as I can tell, there’s just a lot of dance moves and a lot of different skins that you have to buy, and a lot of shootings.
Okay, so there is shooting. So are you playing… No, you’re not playing Fortnite, but are you paying to feed this hunger that he always has to play Fortnight?
Definitely not. I refused.
Okay. Well, that’s a good thing. Maybe his…
But he does have very kind grandparents who often give him those gifts for birthdays and holidays.
That’s very nice of them. That’s very nice. There you go, a little tip for everyone. If you want to help your kids get better at Fortnite, get their grandparents to pay for the skins for them I guess. All right Amanda, we are here today to talk some procurement. Procurement, you’ve been in the business for 15 years. That’s quite a long time, you have a lot of experience in this.
I have, yes. I kind of fell into it also. The reason being is a lot of universities that have started procurement programs. But before that wasn’t a thing. So if you become a procurement professional you did it by chance. And that’s how I started.
You know what? I feel the same. I didn’t even know what procurement was until I was in the business and I just fell into it. I thought there was three jobs in the world, being a police officer, being a lawyer, being a doctor, those are the three jobs you can be. But procurement, thought it’s a made up word.
I agree. My background and my a university study was in criminal justice. So to become a procurement specialist was a far reach, but I landed in this field and I’ve enjoyed it.
Great. I assume if you’ve been there for 15 years you must like something about it for sure. What is your favorite thing about procurement before we get into some of those nitty gritty?
Oh, just how diverse it is, and how every day is something new. And there’s always a challenge that you have to kind of overcome, and I like that it’s not as repetitive as some other positions I’ve been in before.
Know what, that’s a great segue here. The challenges we talked outside this recording, and now here we are talking about it on the podcast itself of a bunch of challenges. I’m not sure if anyone’s heard of this COVID thing, but it’s definitely impacted what procurement is in today’s age, right? So we’ve talked about, and I’d love to explore this with you specifically supply chain and how that has been impacted by COVID and just procurement in general, how has that been impacted by COVID?
Oh, the pandemic has been crazy for all parts of life of course, but especially for supply chain. There were many failures and many structure issues that have been brought to light due to the pandemic. Four or five years ago, most companies had moved to adjust in time inventory, and with the pandemic, we realized pretty quickly that that was not the best way to run a company. It left us very vulnerable, everyone was scrambling to get products that they needed to just keep business afloat. And it caused a lot of organizations to unfortunately they stopped running, or halt production.
Right. And would you say that everything has not only drastically changed but just the processes of what you do has changed a lot over the last year?
For sure. There was a huge PPE crisis and honestly I hadn’t even heard of that word PPE prior to last year. And then all of a sudden my management team is saying, give us all these PPE products, masks and hand sanitizers, and gloves. It was a standard everyday business, but we needed them additional gloves. It was kind of a perfect storm that created a huge bidding war internally for everyone, even all of us that were using state and government funds, we’re using the same pool of money, but yet we were bidding against each other to get the same product which just caused the prices to raise even further.
I guess I never really thought of that, right? And would you say it got quite heated with this bidding war between organizations?
Unfortunately yeah, it did. There were several times where I was kind of felt I was being cut through and it made me feel a little bit bad knowing that maybe a possible doctor didn’t get something they needed to do a surgery that could save someone’s life because I needed the mask to keep an operator driving a bus, but it was important to keep people moving. But that was a lot of those kinds of issues that popped up.
And then you had fraudsters pop up almost overnight. The people that were buying a whole bunch of the PPE supplies and selling them at premium prices or the ones that were selling you masks and mandatory have to pay up front and you’re not going to get them, and then of course product never came. So yeah, that was another issue that popped up almost overnight that we had to navigate through. And on the procurement side, being a buyer myself, I’m used to the vendor kind of wanting my business and all of a sudden a whole bunch of vendors didn’t want my business because they didn’t have product or they couldn’t help me and that was a very odd flip for me to be the one that was kind of begging for them to sell to me versus them wanting to sell to me.
And now it’s been what a year and a half since everything has kind of shifted. Would you say at this point you’ve kind of got back control and you have better bearings around stuff, or are you still being overcome by a lot of challenges that you’ve never seen before?
I think the challenges have shifted. I do think the PPE challenge has kind of leveled out, we are able to get supplies again and a lot of places aren’t needing them again. So that’s definitely helped. But now I feel like the shift has been more towards the shipping issues we’ve had. We had all the backups because everyone started ordering online and the shipping containers were not being made, which caused a shortage. And then we had the ports that were stopped basically because of traffic. And that has still very much slowed down our business and it’s made it very hard to get a lot of products that we typically have gotten and taken for granted for getting so easily.
I guess it’s going to be just challenge after challenge, and after all when COVID just passes, we’ll say it passes and everything’s in a world where it kind of resembles to what it was in the past, maybe we can get to a place where I guess things will be easier for you to procure again and you can go back to those little processes or do you think everything now that has happened is going to just shift from here on out?
I kind of hope there are some things that stay shifted. I think that this was a big eye-opener for a lot of us to kind of get out of the norm. It showed me personally how important vendor relationships are. Suddenly those mom and pop shops that I kind of overlooked a little bit where my main go-tos. If I could run up the street and get something, that was my main go-to and people kind of came together to make masks. I had a vendor that typically sells me upholstery for my seats, stopped production on those and made me 30,000 masks. And so it was impressive that people were able to shift gears like that to help, and I hope that stays the same, that people are willing to shift to help out and help each other.
Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about the failures and wins and just the basic innovation and procurement specifically in regards to how you’ve been dealing with your entire career. You’ve had many wins, many losses and you must have had to… And you’ve already kind of mentioned that you had to innovate even over this past year. I guess I want to dive into that a little bit deeper, what is a failure that you think everyone is heading towards in procurement and how you can kind of give them a tip on how they can kind of stop that?
Yeah. Innovation is like you mentioned very important in the world of procurement. Many times vendors come to us with their new ideas. They’re not going to go straight to the end users, they come to us. And if we listen with a non-judgemental ear, we’re able to push ideas to the forefront and hopefully better our processes. But a lot of times I know for myself, we get busy, we get comfortable with current pliers and we don’t always listen. And then we don’t do a great job of pushing that innovation.
I think one of the great things that have come out of last year is the ability to get out of our heads and kind of look at our standard business practices and look outside for different innovations and different ideas. And I know, me personally, it has changed some of the things that I’ve bought and we don’t plan on going back to the same old, we plan on keeping some of the new ideas that we have and push that a little further. And then I just worry that business as usual isn’t always best and we need to continue looking outside and looking for opportunity, and that’s what I try and do all the time. And if you do that there will be failures. I mean, there are ideas that are out there that you might fail at, but there are definitely wins too.
Yeah, I guess it comes down to I guess anything in life, you can’t just keep doing the same thing forever. Not only does it get stale, but there’s always… The world changes, so you kind of have to change with it. So you have to be able to push new ideas, try new things, and like you said, you will probably fail at a lot of these ideas, but the winds that come out of it always kind of tip that scale in a way that’s like, oh, that was totally worth all the failures because we got this big thing out of it, this big win, right?
Yeah. I have an example of such a win and fail. When I first… About three years ago I should say maybe four, my boss and I started looking at ways to help our maintenance staff with an issue they were having, which was every time a mechanic left their station to go get something from the parts room, it was about a 20 minute to 25 minute delay because our parts rooms on the buses and trains are huge. So it was like a five minute walk to the station, a five minute walk to talk to the clerk, five minute chat with the clerk, you passed the break room and the bathroom. So every time they needed a simple product like a new glove or a WD-40, they would take sometimes up to 20 minutes.When we looked at the industry and saw that many companies, not transit based but other companies were using the vending machines, they’re partly vending machines.
So we pitched this idea to my company and we got many pushbacks and many, “this will never work.” We ha we are a company that has a union and so there were a lot of issues around, are we taking away union positions and union jobs and union work? So we got told no several times but we kept at it and we kept changing our model on how this could work for us, and it took us almost a year and a half, but we were finally able to implement some vending machines. It looks a little different than we had originally planned, but it is a huge success now. We have the vending machines with every day product that the PPE that we use every day, the pens, the papers, the WD-40 like I mentioned, just everyday stuff that the mechanic needed really quick and put it right in all of our pits and then we also put them in all the halls and we have cut down our downtime significantly. So it ended up being a success but it was a lot of failure at first.
Right. And like you mentioned it took like a year and a half to implement something like this. But I imagine the success of this will have a long-term effect that made a year and a half sounds long but compared to… It sounds something like this will have a real impact for years to come.
Yeah. And like I mentioned, it has been about four years now and the first year was kind of rough mainly just because a lot of people weren’t using it like they should or still wanted to keep walking back to the maintenance and walking past the machines. But now that I feel like everyone is using it and it’s got its own rhythm, it’s awesome. There are still some issues where something might be out when you need it, but for the most part, it’s changed our work drastically to the point where we have a lot less downtime of our mechanics.
Let’s move on to another topic that you and I had a little bit of a pre discussion on that was really interesting. And I’d love to pick your brain on it. We kind of mentioned this idea of a generational gap between young procurement professionals and older procurement professionals. I think I would consider myself on the younger side of being a procurement professional and I’ve seen it even in my own organization or throughout just helping others, that there is definitely a different mindset and workflow and rhythm to how young versus old, I guess everything in between as well, everybody has their own way of doing things, and it’s interesting because we all kind of do the same thing. So I would love to hear your opinion on that.
For sure. So in my organization our buying team ranges from age 26 to 70. So there is a huge spread. And like you said it is completely different how we approach things, how we think about things, our ideas, and the goal is that we all come to the same end result, right? We still get the product here when we need it, but that’s been particularly hard. I’m kind of right in the middle of all that. I am not a baby boomer and I’m not Gen X. And so it’s hard to kind of be the one in the middle of navigating, but I see that the world is transitioning and there’s a lot of people are kind of getting left behind and that worries me. And it’s not even just coworkers, it’s vendors also. There’s a lot of paperless stuff going on right now.
And we post all of our bids on an e-bidding system, and there’s a lot of vendors that still want to try and print all their papers and send them to me and I don’t accept those anymore. And so it also is leaving behind many companies. So it’s hard to navigate kind of the loss of the technology or the gain of the technology and the loss of paper. And there’s also the issue of a lot of the people that are in their 70s or 65s in the workforce, they have a lot of knowledge that unfortunately I think gets lost. They don’t pass it down as much as it used to be.
Right. And do you think it’s because of the challenges of using procurement tools that there are not able to pass that type of knowledge? Because obviously they’ve probably done this entire life or at least a significant part of their life and you’re right, they are just chock-full of vast knowledge in procurement, but maybe not so much on how to use specific processes, software on computers and things like that. What do you think would help them pass that knowledge down?
I think part of the issue is the appearance of the way it looks to the younger generation too. They’re thinking, well, if they can’t even do a spreadsheet, how intelligent can they really be in procurement? And so I think there’s that issue too where we presume that just because they can’t do something electronically as good as I can, they’re not as smart as I am. And I see that happen quite a bit at my work and so it’s the ability to shift our thought process into what are your strengths and what are my strengths and how can we combine those to make us all strong? And it’s true, I work with people that have been in my company 32 years and they come to me a lot to say, hey, how do I send this email? Or how do I vote on this voting thing that came through? And I show them and sometimes I think in my head how have you been in the business for this long and don’t know that? But then if I have any procurement question that pops up they’re my first go-tos.
Right. Because they know their stuff, they just might not know how to implement their past knowledge into the new way of doing things perhaps.
I see the struggles with kind of the younger generation coming in too and almost, they have the degree that I don’t have specifically in procurement. And so there’s like an entitlement that I see with that too but I understand that because you did go through more schooling than I did. I totally understand that. But at the same time I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’ve learned some tricks. So you might want to listen because unfortunately the school books don’t teach you real life stuff a lot of the times.
So, I don’t expect you to know this answer, but how can we best bridge that gap between the young generation who you mentioned they might’ve got a degree in procurement, were there even degrees in procurement back then? I feel like there’s new degrees popping up every single day, but they have a degree and they have this gung-ho energy about them, which is good, and they know a lot of technology and all this stuff, but you might be right they also might appear more entitled to things because they have this self-importance and knowledge that they think they have, even though they don’t have that real world experience yet. And then you have the older generation who has been doing it for a very long time, maybe it’s that thing that we were talking about before, where you kind of stay the course almost and you’re not willing to accept and innovate on new ways of doing things, in this case it will be technology. So how do we bridge that gap between old and new?
That is the question everyone’s asking these days in business, isn’t it? How? And fortunately I don’t know if that’s easily answered these days. I think it’s quite a struggle and I know in our company, it wears its ugly head quite often, but we try like I said, our main try is to make sure everyone has a strength and we know what each other’s are and we can hopefully play towards that. And we all know our weaknesses too and we make sure that we help each other with their weaknesses.
So really just help leverage each other and do the best you can. Or Amanda, it sounds like you answer questions from the young and the older generations, so maybe they just keep going to you as the solution.
I do. And maybe that’s the middle child in me. I had an older sister and a younger sister, so maybe that’s just always being in the middle. I’ve always kind of held that role.
The peacekeeper between both sides, right? So yeah, I love it. All right, I’m sending everyone to you, Amanda.
Okay, one more question here. And we’ve talked a lot about the things that have changed, but one of the things that we haven’t really touched upon is specifically funding and budgeting. And we also want to explore or talk about working closely with government or it doesn’t even have to be government, it can be even more broad than that. There’s somebody, something out there, an entity over there that’s kind of overseeing the actions of what you do. How do you navigate all that?
So public procurement is a very unique, challenging environment, mainly because of all the oversights that we have, all those rules and laws we have to abide by and the approval processes. One of the main things is being transparent. Transparency is wonderful. I’m all about knowing what public funds are spent for what. However, in the professional world that I deal with, it makes it hard sometimes because it can also give vendors a very big advantage. I’m going out to bid on something and they can look at any other state agency, any other government agency, they can look at all of our folders on past procurements and see what we paid, who we awarded to, and kind of explain that, or come in $2 less than our incumbent, even though they haven’t really vetted whether they can do it for $2 less.
And so it causes some challenges there. I wish they would all start from what can actually do this job from instead of how can I win this bid? And because sometimes you get into contracts with vendors that were low bidders that they actually can’t do the work. And then you end up in a change order war trying to figure out if we can add prices or negotiate some stuff. And so transparency has a unique issue with that. However, it is wonderful to be able to see what public funds are being spent for. I do understand the need for it.
Yeah. I guess I never thought about it that way, where transparency can be almost a double-edged sword in a way, right? Where it’s good to be transparent, we should be transparent but also because of our honesty and transparency, there are people out there who just want to win and by that notion alone, they might not be the best person for the job, but they’ll be in the guise of the best person. And how far along do they get to in the process, and you might already award them and then it’s only then that you realize they can’t do the job. So that must be challenging for sure. How do you screen that? How do you overcome that?
Well, so we do have different types of procurements we can do, we have what we call a request for proposal where it’s based on technical, not necessarily price, but even then, if we’ve been very transparent about what technical factors we expect, they can copy and paste their technical into the proposal. And it’s really hard to say for sure can you do this? So, we are just constantly trying to verify vendors’ abilities which makes it challenging. We also have a board, I don’t know, a lot of companies don’t, but some do, but we have a board that we have to answer to. And that can be extremely challenging sometimes because the board only meets, they’re kind of an outside agency or an outside source and so they only meet maybe once or twice a month.
So I might get a contract completed on the second of the month, but they had already had a board meeting on the first and it takes me an entire another month to actually get it on the agenda and approved. And it just causes a lot of delays in our supply chain, and unfortunately the blame often gets put on procurement for those type of issues. And it’s like why are you taking so long to get this signed? We awarded this months ago. And then just also with budgeting, we ask for budgets and budgets change a lot, and that makes it challenging too.
Yeah. I guess by having to let’s say answer to a higher up, if you will, the process and urgency of things can be on different levels for people, and maybe it’s just more hoops to go through I guess, to get the things that you want. Does that sound right?
For sure. And in government, we have a lot of roles that we do have seen hoops we do have to jump through and that makes it even that much harder. So when you add an additional layer of oversight, it just really can boggle it down. And then a lot of times the end users don’t really understand, I want the red tissue box and why did you buy me the blue tissue box? And they don’t understand that because the blue tissue box will work the exact same function-wise and it’s $40 cheaper or whatever it happens to be. So that’s hard to bridge that gap a lot. Those are expensive tissues.
Would you say there is… Conversely, we talked a lot about let’s just say the challenges there is to work with a big entity overseeing actions and stuff. Would you say there’s also advantages as well by having that entity close by?
For sure there’s always some positives and negatives to everything. So yeah, our board helps to keep us safe and spend public funds transparently in the way we’re expected to. So that there is that and that is very important.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. All right. So is there anything else that you wanted to say on the scope of, we’ve talked about supply chain and how that has been impacted by COVID. We’ve talked about some wins and losses over here and how you overcame those challenges. The generational gap, we spent a little time on that, and as well as in funding and budgeting. Out of those topics that we explore today, is there anything else you want to say about that?
I guess a few takeaways, would just be to my fellow procurement professionals, hang in there, ask for help from each other and from all the procurement agencies and from vendors. Listen, take new ideas, and run with it. And then for those that aren’t in procurement, I guess just be patient with your coworkers, we all have differences, focus on each other’s strengths and be patient with buying things and make sure that you know what you want and know that we’ll try and get you what you want when you want it. Just have to make sure it’s also within the laws we have to follow.
Of course, yes that makes sense. Please make it legal. We don’t need to jump through even more hoops to get a thing.
Right. And no jobs worth going to jail for.
No, I don’t think so. Well, Amanda, this has been such a lovely conversation. For the people out there who want to use Amanda as the middle person in your… If you’re a young procurement professional or old procurement professional, Amanda who will do it all. No, I’m just kidding. Don’t don’t contact her for those reasons. But Amanda, if people do want to contact you and get in touch with you, how can they do that?
For sure. You can email me at [email protected], which is A-B-U-R-T-O-N @ R-I-D-E-U-T-A.com. And I’m happy to answer any questions and be the middle person if you need me to.
I have questions on Fortnite will you answer those finally?
Absolutely not. I get enough of those.
Well, this has been such a lovely conversation with you Amanda. Thanks everyone for listening to an episode of Inside Public Procurement, my name is Tuong once again, and we’ll see you guys on another episode.
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.
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