The Value of Public Procurement

March 2, 2020 

By Bill Shields

Executive Director, American Society for Public Administration


We all know someone who is on Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. We might be using one of these programs  ourselves. Do we expect them to be delivered seamlessly by a professional workforce? The answer is a resounding yes. After all, it’s common knowledge that these programs consume huge sums of money (and are also a matter of life and death).

Shouldn’t we have the same expectations when it comes to governments that purchase $2 trillion worth of public goods or services annually, a total that equals Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid outlays combined? The answer here should also be yes, but unlike health care related issues, this is a dark corner of government spending.

Still, there’s hardly a minute in a day when procurement officials’  work doesn’t impact our lives. Driving on our roads. Navigating airport technology. Visiting relatives in a veterans’ care facility. Each experience is not only made possible through the work of those on the front lines; it’s made possible by the tools provided them by third parties and undertaken or facilitated by procurement professionals.

The work of public procurement is real. It matters. It’s essential to a strong society. It deserves more understanding and respect by the public. It should become a profession of choice among those dedicated to the public good. Academia and public agencies need to do what it takes to make that happen.

Sadly,  public affairs schools aren’t doing enough.  Open a course catalogue and look at the core curriculum for a public administration degree: Human resources. Public Finance. Facilitation and Team Development. But “procurement,” “acquisition” and “contracting” are not included in any other course description supporting a typical MPA. Often, schools that do offer public procurement education cover compliance-based curriculum, not value-added aspects. Never mind that many have transitioned procurement curriculum to their business schools, where it is called “supply chain management.”

Procurement deserves more than a textbook footnote. Certificates in contract management should be the norm, not the exception.

How about using academic networks to encourage procurement to be meaningfully integrated into curricula? Forums like the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administrations can provide a platform for the procurement community to advocate—with a unified voice and message—the needs and benefits of this greater emphasis.

In the absence of a thorough academic thrust, public agencies must promote the work of procurement in a compelling way that creates a pipeline for the next generation of public servants. We need to raise the visibility of procurement when we talk about the work of public service and administration. It’s about attracting the best talent. But, how?

Let’s not debate whether procurement represents a profession, or function or discipline. Rather, it’s important to articulate how procurement professionals contribute to a strong society, before their first day on the job. What does the position description say? Does it describe the mechanics of the job or does it make a direct connection between what they will do and what the mission of the organization is?

The first priority for the millennial generation is to make a difference. Our public institutions must make a compelling case for talent that Millennials can contribute. We must step away from recruiting by function and developing to specialty. Training and developmental opportunities must help employees reach full potential.

Toward that end, we must raise the visibility of and appreciation for procurement in the public administration community and beyond.

Government is the source of virtually all important change in modern society. Food safety. Travel. The Internet and iPhone. Ongoing research for HIV vaccine. Government sets the rules and enables support for social and commercial enterprises.

It is public service that operates, manages and sustains government. Its role is as important as any in society. But you wouldn’t know it based on anti-public sector sentiment, a bi-partisan affair, a long time in the making. These days, the need to promote a strong and effective public service is more critical than ever. The procurement community must do the same, working through government vehicles, academia and professional organizations to raise procurement to a level of familiarity and appreciation that those entities hold for public administrators. Raising this standing is a necessary prerequisite to doing so with the public at large.

I have had the excellent fortune to meet a broad range of talented procurement professionals. They are among the most dedicated public servants I know. The public must understand and appreciate what they do. Our universities must prepare students to pursue a procurement career in the same manner they do for human resources, budgeting and financial management or strategic planning. And, the procurement community must tell the powerful stories of their work.