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The procurement staffing challenge for local authorities

Why the public sector struggles to attract and retain procurement professionals – and what you can do about it
By Mick O'Donnell on 11 May 2021

Public sector procurement can be challenging. When you’re spending tax-payers’ money and providing vital public services, the stakes are high, and the scrutiny intense. There are layers of compliance to adhere to, and ensuring best value for money has never been more important.

Against this backdrop, it can be tricky to build and maintain an efficient and effective procurement function. Local authorities often struggle to recruit people as well as keep them in their roles, leading to an over-reliance on contractors and a loss of momentum and knowledge as people leave after six or 12 months. Supplier contracts may be poorly managed, leading to a lack of results and disillusionment among the team, perpetuating the problem. Attracting commercially-minded people into public sector roles is touted as a recipe for success, but a jarring of cultures often makes it an impossible fit.

So, procurement staffing is a challenge, but not one that is impossible for the public sector to overcome. All that’s needed is some fresh thinking.

Why the public sector struggles to attract procurement professionals

There is an enduring, and sometimes unfair, perception that local authorities in particular don’t buy well, and then don’t work well with their suppliers.

Many suppliers are no longer tendering for local authority contracts, as they see them as providing too much pain for too little gain – lacking clear strategic direction, poorly managed, generating high reputational risk, and providing precious little profit at the end of it all.

And it can be much the same when those local authorities try to build skilled procurement teams. Commercially-minded people with the right skill-set are in demand, and the public sector doesn’t always have a reputation as the most desirable place to work, or the ability to match the pay and progression the private sector can offer procurement professionals seeking new challenges.

With local authorities all effectively chasing the same small pool of resourcing, there is a lot of movement, making it hard to maintain consistency, a problem that is compounded when councils are forced to plug the resource gap using interims.

Interim resource can be effective if well-managed, but is often a more expensive option, eating into local authority budgets and ensuring it is even more difficult to offer a competitive salary when hiring permanent resource.

Without the right team to work with and manage suppliers to bring innovation and optimise costs, local authorities will lack momentum and consistently fail to produce the results they need. There is a danger that their procurement function becomes a revolving door, in which people come in, get frustrated and then disappear back out in a vicious cycle, which is a challenge they could surely do without on top of everything else they face with budget cuts, and under intense public scrutiny.

Why do I keep losing good people?

eXceeding’s top questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is your procurement strategy right? If you’re going out to market with no clear direction on where you’re heading as an organisation, your employees will feel like the goalposts are always moving on them, leading to frustration and fatigue.
  2. Are your processes efficient? If it’s a battle for your employees every time they want to get from A to B on a project they will quickly become fed up.
  3. Can employees progress in your organisation? People coming in want to know they will be able to move up the career ladder when the time comes. If you’re not providing them with opportunities for professional and personal development, this will also be seen as a negative.
  4. Are you paying enough? If you aren’t willing to pay the going rate for the right quality of resource, you’ll only attract people who see your roles as a learning ground or stepping stone to something new. They won’t stick around long term, because there will always be somewhere else they can work and earn more money.
  5. Are you focused on output, or numbers? It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need a team of five people because you’ve always had a team of five people, but if you have too few people to manage your peaks and too many for the troughs, the workload is never right.
  6. Do you trust your people? The world is changing. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that people can work from home and has caused many people to re-examine their work/life balance. If you’re wedded to the idea of your team working five-days-a-week from a desk in your office, you’ll severely limit your pool of potential candidates. Flexible working, the ability to work from home, and looking beyond your own geography are all musts for modern organisations.

Why it’s time to flip the narrative for better public sector procurement

At eXceeding, we believe that public sector procurement has unique advantages that can make it a great place to work. But the sector has some work to do to convince many procurement professionals of that.

People increasingly want their work to matter. They want to make a difference – to effect change. Well, working in a local authority is actually a really good way to do that. The breadth and depth of categories and areas of spend provide really good exposure for procurement professionals, and come with the opportunity for huge influence. Public sector procurement often involves delivery of highly complex projects with substantial budgets above those you might find in the private sector.

But, by failing to set the strategy, implement effective and efficient processes, and provide the pay and conditions that people expect, too many local authorities are missing out on the highest calibre candidates.

Yes, the unique nature of public sector procurement comes with well-documented challenges but, if we can flip the narrative as well as make it a better sector in which to work, maybe we can make it more attractive to high-calibre procurement professionals.

How eXceeding can help

As procurement specialists with many years of combined experience across the public and private sector, we are uniquely placed to understand the demands faced by local authorities in particular in building and maintaining a skilled procurement function. Our breadth of expertise means we can help with setting a robust procurement strategy as well as identifying and recruiting the resource needed to deliver on that strategy.

We are committed to helping local authorities buy better, and to developing tailored solutions that deliver real value for money.

Our strategic procurement consultants work with you to understand and map where you’re heading as an organisation. When there’s a problem, it can be tempting to focus on getting people in quickly to solve the issue, but recruitment of permanent or interim staff alone won’t fix the problem if the problem is that you have the set-up all wrong. Develop a strategy that helps you buy well, then build a team that will help you deliver it. We’ll help you understand your routes to market, streamline your processes and reduce the workload, which should make hiring the right people, with the right skill set, who will stay the course, a lot easier. As an added benefit, an improved strategy will make working with you more attractive to your suppliers as well, helping you attract a wider range of higher-calibre suppliers that can deliver true innovation as well as proven results.

Our extensive procurement expertise means we can also assist local authorities with the identification and recruitment of the resource needed to deliver against their procurement strategy, whether that is interims, outsourcing, hiring in individuals with a particular specialist skillset, or burst capacity to boost resource for a set period of time. Our resourcing specialists will work with you to tailor a resource solution that best meets your needs, ensuring optimum value for money. Where interims may be required, we can manage them and the deliverables, providing a community of support and advice should that person need further help or guidance. All you see is a better job being done.

One of the options we may explore is whether you would benefit from a flexible resource model that pulls in the resource you need when you need it, and saves you money when you don’t. A delivery model that supplements a small permanent team with cost-effective resource that you only use when you need it can save you money and deliver better outcomes in the long term.

To talk to one of our strategic procurement or resourcing consultants about how eXceeding can help you deliver better public sector procurement, you can contact us here or book a free appointment using the link below.

Image of BD & Sales Director, Mick O'Donnell

Mick O’Donnell

Mick spent 20+ years working for EDS and HP in the IT and BPO outsourcing industry, solutioning and managing complex Pan-European delivery models. This background has created a real passion for service excellence and delivering solutions that deliver true value.

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