People & Skills
Procurement Dilemmas – Keeping Senior People Happy

Earlier this week on our UK-focused site we reported on the events surrounding the design and planning of a proposed new “Garden Bridge” over the Thames in London.

The idea was proposed by the actress Joanna Lumley, who asked a designer, Thomas Heatherwick, and an engineering firm, Arup, to help with the early plans. The initial idea was that the bridge would be privately funded. But when it became clear that money would be needed from the government, then it came under EU and UK procurement rules.

Transport for London therefore had to let contracts for the design and the technical side of the project. And Heatherwick and Arup won those competitions! The procurement process for the appointment of Heatherwick in particular was not very rigorous, and now there is discussion about whether the process has been fair and obtained best value for the taxpayer.

This also highlights some generally interesting points for procurement. Many public sector procurement professionals will have had experience when somebody powerful very much wants a certain supplier to win a contract. We’re not talking here about pure corruption, where the motivation is for personal gain. We mean a situation where the senior person – and maybe even the procurement person too – really believe that a particular supplier is the best to do the work.

In such cases, the buyer is under pressure to “come up with the right answer” and “make sure this supplier wins the competition”. What is the best way to respond to that?

It is easy to say that buyers should simply ignore that pressure and carry out the process exactly as usual. However, that can be personally difficult if very senior people are involved, and the most successful professionals I have known in the public sector don’t ignore the issue. In fact, they take two steps that help in these situations.

First of all, they are not afraid to explain to senior people why procurement process is important, and what the consequences would be if rules are broken, or a scandal hits the newspaper. They don’t do this in an aggressive manner, obviously, but they are not afraid to have that discussion, even with politicians!

However, they then look to understand why the senior individual thinks that supplier should win the contract. What is it that makes the supplier special or makes the senior person believe they are best placed to do the work? Often you will find that there is a reason that has at least some validity. It might be that the supplier has promised to bring investment or jobs to the town or region involved. Or their product or service has worked really well in another similar organisation.

What the procurement professional can then do is offer to incorporate that into the tender evaluation process. So in many cases, we can say to our senior sponsor, “look, we cannot guarantee that Supplier X will win, but we can make the evaluation strongly weighted towards these factors that you believe are important”. That will of course give Supplier X a good chance of success – but it is also likely that any other organisation who wins instead will also be strong in the area of interest. We can then hope that satisfies the senior person, even if their favourite has not won!

Clearly this does not overcome cases where corruption is involved or it is just blatant favouritism. But it is worth showing senior sponsors that you want to help them, and you want to understand their preferences. That can help to make them feel positive about the process, and make sure you can still run a proper and legally compliant procurement.

First Voice

  1. Reta says:

    A very good piece. I’ve found it common, even normal, that seniors assume that its OK that their organisation awards a contract to their preferred personal choice. That choice isn’t (usually) corrupt, its based on some perceived positive attributes of the supplier. And there’s the opposite effect, where a supplier is blackballed for some perceived negative reason. In the private sector, one can have a discussion about whether the choice is good for stakeholders, and if it really is, proceed accordingly. But in the public sector, the rules can make this illegal and indefensible. Explaining that is a necessary part of the job; you have to protect the seniors if their preferences are invalid and likely to lead to successful challenge which would damage the organisation, your own professional reputation (‘why did you let this happen’) and even the senior’s own position. To be kind, especially if the senior is a recent entrant to the public sector, they may not know the rules even exist. It is the professionals job to explain, calmly but assertively, and tease out the underlying rationale, and if that can be addressed in a selection process. But if not, stand your ground!