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The bureaucrats' guide to procurement

Harvey Jon Harvey offers some top tips for bureaucrats anxious to make the process as obstructive as possible. These are real examples from the purchase of leadership and organisational development consultancy

1. Make sure that the PQQ is at least 65 pages long with 367 separate items of information to gather. It is well known that the best consultants in this arena thoroughly enjoy and indeed have bucketfuls of time to answer numerous questions about their own policies on health & safety, quality, complaints handling, business continuity and hand washing protocols (even though many of them work in small or single person firms).

2. Be sure to embed the description of the requirement somewhere towards the middle of the specification document as this helps ensure the consultant will read all 188 items about the terms and conditions of the contract. Whatever you do, label the requirement in some way that means it is not easily found. You want people to dig for what you want them to do for you.

3. Take care to include at least two, if not three different deadline dates as this helps the consultant keep alert. A single clear deadline date has been shown to produce only poor quality tender documents.

4. Learn to use the ‘cut and paste’ function of your word processor. It is an invaluable tool when compiling PQQs since it then becomes remarkably easy to produce document paragraph numbering arrangements that only the very best consultants can hope to fathom.

5. Be sure to ask several ‘wild card’ questions that will sort the men/women from the boys/girls. For example asking the question “what percentage of your core capability would be represented by this opportunity?” is so deliciously full of loosely defined words that this will provide an excellent filter and criterion for assembling the final list of candidates.

6. Do know that the worst Leadership and OD consultants around have far too much flair, verve, enthusiasm and creativity to want to engage with the detailed procurement processes that you design. A crucial way to ensure your organisation ends up hiring the best is to make your procedures disproportionately complex in relation to the requirement being tackled. A good rule of thumb is ask 15 PQQ questions for every day of the consultant’s time that she/he might end of spending on the project.

7. Even though this kind of consultancy is essentially an activity involving lots of words, some reports and perhaps training/facilitation materials, be sure to ask several questions about the ‘materials handling’, RIDDOR  and transportation during the course of the project roll out. The best consultants in this arena will have gained the highest levels of environmental impact assessments and accreditation to international sustainability standards.

8. Policies on matters relating to diversity, staff development, complaints handling, and quality assurance are essential measures of how well consultants practice in these areas. It is well known for example, that the organisations with the best performances in these areas have enumerable and voluminous policies on all these and related areas. In other words – when in doubt ask for a written policy, in triplicate.

9. Treat these consultants at arm’s length. Many of them are known to be not much better than ‘snake oil’ salespeople with whom you cannot trust yourself. They have ‘Svengali’ like powers of verbal persuasion so whatever you do, do not talk with them. Ensure that they can only communicate with you via email or even better the e-procurement website.

10. When answering questions put on the e-procurement website ensure that your answers restate what you have already put in the documentation. Their attempts to get you to ‘explain’ what you really meant by (for example) “detail what experience you have of working within the parameters of Government procedures and protocols” must be met with equally impenetrable explanations. They are only trying to catch you

11. Another good stock phrase to use in response to enquiries is “that information is not available at this stage of the procurement process”. This will handle most of the questions put and indeed will inspire creativity from the consultants asking the questions. Their attempts to ‘make something up’ in the absence of a clear specification are remarkably effective at helping you choose the best value supplier.

12. Even though you are sourcing professional expertise here and a good number of your questions will relate to this, do not be put off from putting in place procedures that essentially treat these suppliers like commodities. Many of the questions you use when sourcing (for example) office products, utility supplies and other bulk purchasing can be used with these consultants too.

13. Always have in reserve the tried and tested procurement methodology of “numbers in a hat”. Occasionally, despite your best efforts to make the PQQ process as tortuous as possible, you may well still get far more responses back than you have the resources to analyse adequately. At this point you can bring in this method. Allocate a number to each one and ask a colleague to pick a few numbers at random. By the universal laws of probability, fate and serendipity, you will automatically and miraculously pull out the best candidates to go onto the next stage of your procurement process!

I hope these guidelines help. None of the examples are made up (well, perhaps the hand-washing example was – although watch this space in this age of increasing infections) and have been drawn from my experience in bidding against many invitations to tender and pre qualification questionnaires. Like any management tool, procurement used well, can be a real boon to organisations in sourcing the best possible suppliers.

As a long term advocate and practitioner in the field of continuous improvement, I am a robust supporter of good procurement practice. I also consider it my responsibility to challenge poor practice when I see or experience it. This may be to my cost of course and means, perhaps, I do not gain access to some business that I might if I were more compliant and adaptable. But, just as there is ‘humbug’, ‘blarney’ and ‘baloney’ in consultancy (and politics and religion while I am on the point!) – there are also increasing amounts in procurement too, I feel.

If good procurement practice is about securing the best possible supplier (a supplier who meets or indeed even exceeds all the specified requirements at the cheapest cost), how do we know? Not only must procurement deliver best value, it must itself be best value as well.

One of my concerns is that procurement processes are self-reinforcing. The supplier is chosen and the right choice must have been made because the supplier ticked all the right boxes. But is it possible that a better supplier was excluded by dint of the procurement process itself having inbuilt (and perhaps untested) assumptions & criteria? How are procurement processes evaluated?

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