Trends for the future: Public procurement professionals adapt to the changing and challenging times ahead – American City & County

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This article originally appeared in the Q4 issue of Government Procurement.
The recent pandemic demonstrated the importance of supply chain management, as well as the need for flexibility in adapting to changing demands and inventory. Public procurement teams rose to the challenge of the pandemic by leveraging their knowledge, partnerships with suppliers and collaboration across the profession, while maintaining core values of transparency and ethical practices.
On the other side of the procurement table, suppliers responded with changes of their own. Bringing in subject matter experts, additional sourcing resources and consultative services, they expanded beyond their contract offering with newly value-added features. The relationships between suppliers and procurement teams were strengthened to successfully address the non-stop influx of challenges.
Automation takes huge leap forward
Governments often rely on internal proprietary systems or manual, paper-intensive processes. However, when teams were forced to move to off-site locations during the pandemic, automation took a huge leap forward.
The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, known as CapMetro, is a public transportation provider, operating bus services and a commuter rail system in Austin and suburbs in Travis and Williamson, Texas. Maintaining 2,300 bus stops across 83 routes; 17 Park & Rides/transit centers, nine commuter rail stations, electric trains, hundreds of paratransit vehicles and Metrobuses, there is a pressing demand to keep operations in constant motion.
In 2018, all bid opportunities were published manually, and interactions were conducted via mail and email exchanges, creating a lengthy paper process. The Authority began a significant push toward automation, by contracting with PlanetBids, a nationally recognized eProcurement company tailored toward government procurement.
Fast forward to 2020, when the remaining unautomated portion became a higher priority. Muhammad Abdullah, CapMetro’s senior director notes, “when our workforce transferred to off-site environments, our entire process needed to quickly move to 100 percent electronic.” Working with Planetbids on a fast-tracked implementation plan, CapMetro’s needs were quickly addressed.
Julia A. Wilkes, executive assistant for CapMetro’s procurement department shares, “procurement actually became busier while telecommuting, as procurement’s role became critical to the Authority’s emergency response.” Alan Zavian, co-founder of PlanetBids concurs, “with an almost overnight transition to remote working environments, our team had to quickly respond by helping multiple public agencies stay productive. Many discovered that a cloud-based platform, available 24/7 and from any location, quickly solved many of their challenges. We envision the use of eProcurement systems growing over the next few years.”
Data security needs strengthening
Working in government office with a maintained network makes it easy to control access. However, keeping the IT environment secure within a decentralized working environment becomes a bigger undertaking. According to Sharp Corp., a designer and manufacturer of electronic products, the requirement to update procedures, security protocol and maintain confidential data will be an increasing future challenge. One way to ensure consistency is to equip employees with specified equipment with encrypted hard drives—as well internet endpoint protection to defend against intrusion and cyberattacks.
Unfortunately, home users do not always use best practices when configuring their Wi-Fi networks where default passwords are not changed, firmware isn’t updated and important settings are ignored. Shane Coffey writes in Sharp’s The Simply Smarter Blog, “one of the first steps for teleworking is to disable the ability to automatically add new devices in a security-first configuration. A correctly provisioned router will add a layer of protection to government data by protecting not only the individual device, but the entire network, as a hacker may gain access through one computer.”
Coffey continues, “human error is a common factor in many security breaches, so it’s essential all employees are also trained on cybersecurity issues. Phishing, a popular technique for hackers, involves sending texts or emails that look legitimate, with the goal of getting the recipient to offer up some personal information or click on a link that installs malware.”
The distributed workforce seems to be here to stay. Claudia Leon, director of procurement for 1GPA, a cooperative organization, states, “extreme flexibility and creative problem solving with the vendor community and key stakeholders will continue to be vital for procurement professionals in 2022. Over the past 18 months, we have encountered unprecedented challenges and facing the imminent reality that virtual work in all aspects of public procurement is here to stay.”
Rebecca Seifert, 1GPA’s procurement specialist in technology, elaborates further, “a fully integrated, virtual procurement system has never been more critical, and virtual security will be at the forefront as cybersecurity opportunities and threats increase.”
Workplace expectations
As workers have proven the capability to meet workload demands and performance measures, research supports the move to a hybrid work solution—blending office and home. Microsoft research reports that 41 percent of global workers are considering leaving their jobs this year, which is fueling conversations about how to create a new hybrid work experience to retain those employees. In turn, those companies who provide office equipment and furniture are innovating to meet changing expectations.
Steelcase, a leading manufacturer of furniture for offices, hospitals and classrooms, recognizes evolving client expectancies with new creations on the horizon. Arriving in 2022, their Flex Personal Spaces will provide highly flexible workstations that can quickly and easily adapt orientation to achieve the level of privacy needed—whether it’s for a video call or sustained heads-down focus time. When visiting a restaurant recently, many have experienced scanning a QR code to view an on-line menu. Similar technology is now coming to the office. When reserving shared workspaces or conference rooms, a newly developed Steelcase DeskWizard provides the ability to scan a QR code to make reservations through the convenience of a mobile device.
Chris Congdon, Steelcase director of brand management states, “people will want to see and feel their organization is taking action to meet their new needs. It may be challenging initially, but there’s never been a greater opportunity for organizations to reset their culture to connect employee needs, in conjunction with the entity’s operational requirements.”
Supply chain management requires updated vision
Many governments built their supply chain strategy on “next-day” delivery from suppliers and minimized warehouse operations over the past decade. The new challenges presented throughout the pandemic provided extremes in supply chain disruptions with entities—private and public—bidding on the same supplies. While supply chain is often forecasted by past data, during unprecedented times, old data couldn’t predict the new normal.
UC Berkeley supports a program called Student Technology Equity Program (STEP) that provides technical equipment—laptops, webcams, USB microphones, hotspots—to financially disadvantaged students. Quickly deploying B&H, a technology reseller, using the OMNIA Partners cooperative contract, allowed UC Berkeley to place large bulk orders for desperately needed equipment quickly, without having to issue their own solicitation.
Amidst global supply chain shortages, B&H’s in-house experts worked with the UC Berkeley team to source thousands of webcams, laptops, mics and other supporting equipment at a time when massive shortages were rampant. “On behalf of the university, B&H worked with existing and new distributors to find inventory wherever possible to garner the equipment so desperately needed” says, Ariel Sobin, West Coast sales manager for B&H.
When an item was no longer available, B&H’s subject matter experts were on hand to make recommendations for alternatives to the UC Berkeley team. Maintaining clearer insight into the supply chain process, Sobin notes, “our buyers provided real time updates on which products were in transit to our warehouse to ensure a seamless transition without a lapse in inventory.”
To assist further, B&H occasionally maintained the university’s inventory within their own warehouse location to ensure supplies would be on hand when the orders were eventually received. B&H’s Sobin continues, “with students and faculty working and learning remotely, we coordinated shipping directly to student’s homes. Despite early shortages of webcams, and more recently with computer chips, we shipped hundreds of items for this crucial program.”
Further south in California, the County of San Diego’s Department of Purchasing & Contracting (DPC) served in the San Diego County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Jack Pellegrino, the DPC director was assigned the role of EOC logistics chief, which was critical in acquiring the PPE needed throughout the emergency. Taking the logistics challenge even further, the county was one the first counties in the nation with the capability for public COVID testing with results returned within one business day. This effort allowed the county to achieve over a 75 percent county vaccination rate by mid-2021.
With San Diego County warehouse operations reduced in previous years, there was an increasing need for storage capacity. The county used local distributors through its existing contracting relationships. Pellegrino shares, “two examples of successful partnerships were with Waxie Sanitary Supply and Corodata Moving and Storage, both local San Diego companies. Waxie provided sanitizer products and gloves and managed storage and transportation as the county’s needs evolved. Corodata provided additional storage space at their own warehouse locations as well inventory handling and distribution services throughout the pandemic.”
Comprehensive cleaning approach
Before the pandemic, Steve Gerszberg, principal at Johnson Business Products, didn’t know much about MERV ratings, which stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value as a measurement scale designed to report the effectiveness of air filters. However, once the impacts were being felt across the nation, and understanding that clients needed immediate answers to new questions, “we rolled up our sleeves and dove in,” said Gerszberg.
Jersey City Public Schools (JCPS), comprised of 39 schools and serving almost 30,000 students, sought a solution to drive higher air quality for their New Jersey school district. At the same time, Trendway announced they would begin distributing the patented and well-established Fellowes AeraMax Pro air purifiers was released. “As I started learning about this innovation, I knew it was the right product for this project” Gerszberg said.
Working with the school district, Gerszber’s team used school site operational plans and walked the buildings with the JCPS senior electrician to select best locations for installation. The team also helped determine what filter purchases would be needed throughout the fiscal year to balance the need for clean air with the budget to support that ongoing effort. Rob Day, executive vice president of customer experience for Fellows Contract Interiors, states “it’s a basic premise that healthier workspaces start with clean air.”
While janitorial services concentrate on the cleaning of restrooms, floors and open surfaces, it might overlook the cleaning of shared equipment. To make facilities healthier for the future, a broader vision is now being taken with cleaning service contracts. According to StaplesWorklife.com article “3 Steps to a Healthy and Safe Workplace,” the “perception of ‘clean’ needs to evolve from cleaning for appearance to cleaning for health.”
Staples recommends partnering with an industry expert to identify gaps by comparing the current workplace health to best practices and guidelines. This assessment evaluates indoor air quality, placement of hand sanitizers and touchless fixtures, restroom disinfection, individual and common area sanitation. In addition, collaboration with facilities teams can provide physical distancing guidelines, cleanliness signage, review of room capacities, re-configuring seating areas and using physical barriers in waiting rooms or customer counters. As people become more attuned to the importance of sanitation, expectations for new rules of engagement will evolve as well.
Cooperative contracts playing bigger role
Just as many consumers appreciate the savings when shopping at a warehouse store, the concept of leveraging combined spend is a growing government contracting trend. Known as cooperative procurement, it combines the procurement requirements and purchasing power of multiple municipal entities. Having a ready-to-go contract allows government teams to garner supplies and services quickly.
According to Sean Behan, chief of purchasing and contracting for County of San Diego, “beyond using our own solicitation efforts, San Diego County’s use of cooperatives was critical to fill-in gaps in supply availability during the pandemic. Because cooperatives have a regional and national reach with established vendors and products, they were able to secure needed supplies and services which were not within our local solicitation outreach. The pandemic affirmed the importance of cooperative procurement organizations and contracts.”
Many companies are realizing this type of resource commitment can make better business sense. Concentrating resources toward one process results in a cooperative contract that can then be offered across a greater number of public entities. By not responding, and ultimately managing, hundreds of individual contracts, suppliers can offer advantageous pricing with value added services.
Element Corp. recently entered the cooperative world with the award of two cooperative contracts for fleet management and financing. Ken Fosina, Element’s managing director of government and Mega, acknowledges, “our client service to the public sector is in its early stages and not yet very well known. A cooperative contract provides widespread visibility and transaction opportunities for Element, as we are able to support governments of all levels.”
Future for procurement
One positive outcome of the pandemic? Many organizations have a greater appreciation for their procurement professionals who served admirably during the pandemic. Looking to the future, procurement teams must continue adapt, navigate and rely on innovations to meet the changing needs of any new environment.
 
Tammy Rimes is the executive director of the National Cooperative Procurement Partners (NCPP). She formally served as purchasing agent for the City of San Diego, the ninth largest city in the nation, and emergency logistics chief during the 2007 Witch Creek Fires. Under her leadership, the City consolidated its warehouse operations, centralized all purchasing and contracting operations, and moved to a more customer focused approach.
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