The New World of Procurement
According to the Urban Institute, there’s more than $3.5 trillion spent by state and local governments, about triple the amount spent in 1977.
The are few people who have watched public sector procurement more closely and from better positions than David Gragan, Chief Administrative and Strategic Operations Officer of the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO). Below are some excerpts from a fascinating conversation with him about the state of procurement in 2023.
Gragan’s first state government procurement role was in 1993, and since then he has served as chief procurement officer in Indiana and Texas, and as the cabinet-level procurement director, and subsequently the chief learning officer in the city of Washington D.C. He also spent eight years as the procurement executive for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as time in private sector procurement roles. In August 2022, he joined the National Association of State Procurement Officials in his current role.
During his thirty years in the procurement business, there’s been a shift in the nature – and perception -- of government procurement, which has morphed from a compliance-oriented, form-filled rule-heavy profession to one that strives to become a strategic, valuable partner that helps agencies and governments achieve their mission, while serving the public and protecting taxpayer dollars.
Here are some compelling observations he shared with us in a recent conversation:
The culture of procurement is changing. “Procurement is necessarily bureaucratic in the sense that in the public interest, it’s meant to be a control function,” he says. “But in our direct clients’ interest, it’s meant to be a facilitation function. The magical balance for a procurement director is to make your clients feel like you’re going to make it easy for them, but at the same time encourage the public to believe that you’re being very stingy with every penny that they’ve entrusted to us.”
There’s a need for more extroverted procurement officials. “While “we're functional teammates of everyone that's in state service,” he says, “we're frequently not very good advocates for our own profession. . . We continue to remain behind the veil. And yet we have a lot to be proud of. . . We need to hire people that are willing to stand up and advocate for the profession. We need to hire people who are a little more extroverted in leadership roles.
“I have tremendous respect for the workforce that was hired thirty years ago and the people that have come in because it’s a heads-down, quiet existence. They got us here. They got us to where we have processes that are really good, but now it’s time to make them better. And that requires a different personality.”
The procurement profession must be more self-aware of its failures as well as its success. “With respect to the process, generally, we're not introspective enough,” he says. “We aren't self-critical enough. My thirty years now in public procurement have been successful largely because I'm a fairly vocal critic of the way we do our business. I’m positive that everything we do can be done better. In procurement we have all the tools we need, but if your clients can’t access that system, then there's obviously a problem.
Communication is key. Gragan argues that the most successful procurement officers are “good communicators, maybe even supremely good communicators.”
The best procurement officials are aware of their role in the scheme of things. “To be really good at what we do as public executives,” he says, “is to never forget that we work for everyone that we pass on the street – that they’re essentially our boss.”