Success is in the air at the Hillsborough County, Fla., Procurement Services Department, the latest of only six public agencies to meet the strenuous and exhaustive criteria to earn the Pareto Award of Excellence in Public Procurement.

"I want to give my staff an environment that is free of 'office pollution,' where people can breathe fresh air, make contributions and know their voice will be heard," says Hillsborough County Director of Procurement Services Dr. Lula Banks. "My goal is to be very supportive of the staff."

A high level of staff morale — it's in the air — was one of the highlights of the department's operation noted when a four-person peer review panel from the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) visited Hillsborough County to assess its worthiness for the award. The peer review team noted that "members of the purchasing department at all levels feel valued and respected."

The quest to earn the Pareto Award has "just made us better at what we do," says Banks. "We asked ourselves within our department: What can we do better? We initiated processes to improve our work and to bring more value. We listen to what our customers are saying and learn from it. We still make mistakes, but everything we do helps us determine how we can do things better. It is important to learn from your mistakes and to be accountable for what you do."

Banks' style of leadership-by-example is also among the success factors, as is the procurement department's single-minded focus on customer service. "The customer is not just the other departments, but anyone who comes to this department to do business with us," says Banks. "Our job is to provide them service. The customer really enables us to be here, whether it's a vendor, a partner, an agency. We seek to work proactively with other departments instead of reactively," says Banks.

Other successful aspects at Hillsborough County listed in the peer review include:

  • Effective delegation to client departments of purchases up to $10,000 through training, empowerment and comprehensive policy and procedural guidelines;

  • Clear demonstration of assertive leadership, both within the procurement group and throughout county departments;

  • An excellent, proactive relationship with client departments and a continuous focus on building those relationships;

  • Strong support and encouragement for professional certification;

  • Excellent recognition and reinforcement of the importance of ethics in public purchasing; and

  • A vigorous, dynamic and well-managed procurement card program.

The journey to world-class

The first step toward excellence worthy of Pareto Award recognition began several years ago when the Hillsborough County board of commissioners provided funding for training to enable the procurement staff to obtain certifications, which helps them do their jobs better, says Banks. County administration also instituted a program to rate various departments, including procurement, based on customer service ratings from internal and external customers (vendors), with a goal of maintaining a 90 percentile. Banks acknowledges support from the county's leadership team, including the board of commissioners, County Administrator Pat Bean and Management Services Director Eric Johnson.

An initial self-study undertaken by Hillsborough County looked at where the department was and where it was going, including analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). There were outdated procedures, a need for more staff training (to build on the 75 percent of the professional staff who were certified) and imprecise position classifications that complicated efforts to find the right employees ("procurement analysts" had been called "contract managers"). Although the purchasing staff had won a county technology innovation award in 2006 for the improvised Solicitation Tracking and Reporting System (STARS), information management had remained a weakness because of an outdated Advanced Purchasing and Inventory Control System (ADPICS), which will be replaced in the next several years by a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) finance system.

Achieving an elite level of excellence

The Pareto Award of Excellence in Public Procurement, comparable to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, is named for the political sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848 -1923), the father of scientific procurement whose Pareto Rule posits that roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. The criteria for achieving the Pareto Award are so challenging that only five public agencies have been able to earn the designation since the award's inception in 2003. Hillsborough County is the sixth public agency whose leadership and credentials are worthy of the top honor.

Pareto accreditation is awarded for five years, and obtaining the award requires rigorous adherence to a three-phase award process. Candidates must complete a self-study and then provide responses to 60 questions covering areas of leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, process management, technology and information management, and performance review. The final phase involves an on-site peer review. Only public procurement agencies that have been certified with the Outstanding Agency Accreditation Achievement Award (OAAA) are eligible for the Pareto Award.

The peer review at Hillsborough County included reviewing the written submission, holding extensive discussions with Banks and interviewing the entire procurement team, executive management, clients and suppliers. Interview questions were structured to allow open-ended responses. A sampling of procurement files was reviewed to gain an impression of process integrity. Since the agency had recently conducted comprehensive customer and vendor satisfaction surveys, those survey results were used in lieu of separate surveys.

The peer review team described the organization's mission as "comprehensive, client-focused and pragmatic." Outstanding aspects of leadership include involvement with the county budgetary process; participation in professional associations at the local, regional and national levels; and "clear and consistent definition of expectation and consequences." Cross-functional training helps to promote a team environment, and the management team "leads by example, demonstrating sound, professional ethics and values," says the peer review team.

"I think when you look at leadership, the critical values are ethics, integrity, being transparent, efficiency and effectiveness," says Banks. "It takes a team approach. We are cross-trained in each other's roles, which has been very beneficial to us over time. When we are short-staffed, we can step into a person's shoes and keep the work going. That has been very helpful and has built morale."

Leadership should also extend to how procurement interacts in the broader organization, says Banks. "In order to ensure that procurement is recognized in any organization, it has to take a leadership role," she says. "Procurement has to be at the table where decisions are being made. So much an organization does surrounds how we spend money, and I want them to understand that we are here to help them, and it should not be on an adversarial basis."

Process management accomplishments recognized at Hillsborough County include the development several years ago of a contract with NAPA Auto Parts for vehicle spare parts, thus taking advantage of the synergy gained through cooperation and analysis with clients. "It has allowed our fleet department to have access to parts without keeping a big inventory," says Banks. The peer review also noted a strong vendor management process related to Florida's Consultant Competitive Negotiation Act (CCNA), which gives special consideration to how procurement is handled for professions such as architects, engineers and surveyors (price sheets are provided in sealed envelopes).

The peer review noted these minor deficiencies:

  • A need to develop and document a technology plan for procurement beyond ERP implementation;

  • Need to aggressively adopt a stronger leadership rolefor environmentally favorable purchasing practices; and

  • Need for a continuing strategic focus on performance measures.

But looking for ways to improve is part of the culture at the Hillsborough County Procurement Services Department. "When you fail to look for ways to improve your process, you fail to exist as a viable component of your organization," Banks contends.

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