Thinking it through: Reflections on high tech public purchasing

Because the procurement process is one of the most visible points of intersection between the public and private sectors, it will always be bedeviled by a host of issues. Some are traditional: Bad contracting results in worse contracts, or flawed processes encourage poor suppliers to sell the public what they have rather than what’s required. Some issues are structural, such as tendering exercises that address symptoms rather than needs because the public institution has not correctly evaluated or articulated the underlying problem. And some are resource-based: there is simply never enough time, money or people to go around.

Beyond these kinds of well-known problems, however, lies a new and possibly more complex issue. It’s a kind of Holy Grail for some managers and may represent a path out of

perdition for others. Poorly thought, though, it may turn out to have more to do with confusion than Confucius.

What is it? It’s “e” – the electronic revolution

Electronic technologies and strategies are increasingly common in government, receiving significant levels of both attention and resources. This is particularly true in the field of public sector procurement. Every procurement related conference, journal or interjurisdictional discussion seems to address topics like e-service strategies, e-tendering, e-bidding and e-supply chains.

While these technologies and discussions around them have potential, basic questions linger: Why do “e” anything? What problems does it solve? For whom? How? What is e-procurement anyway? Why should it be a priority? Why do different procurement bodies disagree about e-procurement?

The list of tough questions goes on, but in the meantime there seems to be a headlong rush to implement e-procurement. The federal government and most provinces have or are developing e-procurement systems. Based on this trend, common sense would suggest that all public bodies need to either “get on board or be left behind.”

That said, public organizations arguably need to give much more thought to why they should consider e-procurement, what problem it really solves, whose interests it supports and how it promotes long term public sector business policy considerations. In the absence of sorting out these issues, organizations should not consider an “e” strategy for the simple reason that it would not be a strategy. Instead, it would amount to technology implemented for its own sake, potentially to the detriment of key stakeholders and certainly without a compelling business case to propel this initiative through the inevitable periods of variable commitment and shrinking resources experienced by most public sector organizations.

What is e-procurement – and for whom?

There are many different views of what e-procurement is and is not. Indeed the lack of consensus around the issue is a large part of the challenge. If however we define e-procurement as the acquisition of goods and services and related processes by electronic means, then it arguably has three main elements: