If you frequent the NIGP message boards, you see the relationship between procurement and the governing body discussed often. It is also a recurring theme among purchasing professionals at seminars, forums and person-to-person conversations. Each discussion, each incident has its own peculiarities, but a common thread persists: Why do they (council, board, commission, etc.) act like they do, and how can we get along better?

To explore these questions, I decided to go straight to the source. Before I semi-retired late last year, my last position was as purchasing manager of Irving, Texas, a Dallas suburb of 200,000 people. I sat down with two members of the city council to discuss how elected officials relate to, and work with, purchasing.

In my public purchasing career, I have experienced both supportive and less-than-supportive governing bodies. The City Council of Irving appreciates staff but doesn't rubber-stamp every recommendation. They ask hard questions, ultimately driving everyone's best efforts to the table.

"It all begins with a vision," Irving Councilwoman Rose Cannady said in her folksy but straight-forward manner. "The Council has a vision, and we hired a city manager who has the same vision. Now he and the city staff have to implement the vision."

In addition to Cannady, I spoke with Irving Councilman Rick Stopfer. Their comments and observations can help us better understand why governing bodies act as they do. And with better understanding comes a better relationship.

Based on my years of experience in addition to the feedback from Cannady and Stopfer, this article will explore five words that can form the foundation for building a strong, mutually-beneficial relationship with a governing body.

1. Vision

Too often we focus on what a governing body should not be doing, such as micro-managing or getting too involved in day-to-day operations. Instead, we should remember what a governing body should be doing, which is setting the general direction for the entity. The word for that is "vision," which has been defined as seeing things not as they are, but as they could be.

Cannady said that staff's role is implementing that vision. If you substitute "purchasing" for "staff," it becomes more personal. As purchasing pros, we have a lot of different tasks and customer groups, but at the very foundation of our work is the implied directive to work toward the vision articulated by our governing body.

"When visions align," Stopfer declared, "we can take it to the next level."

You can have a vision for any area you have control over — your desk, your unit, your department — but your vision must dovetail with that of your governing body. If it doesn't, you're likely to be frustrated and discouraged.

On an airplane, you are likely to hear a message from the flight attendant: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard flight 1429, non-stop service to Denver." Now if you have a vision of being in Denver, congratulations. You have aligned yourself with a pilot, crew and fellow passengers who have the same vision.

But if your vision is seeing yourself in San Francisco, you have three choices:

  • Get off and find a plane going to San Francisco,
  • Fly to Denver and then board another plane to the Bay area, or
  • Change your vision to Denver.

You do not realistically have the choice of convincing the flight crew and all the other passengers that you should all be going to San Francisco.

If you are constantly trying to change the vision, you're not going to win the battle. Maybe it's time to look for another flight.

Try to implement these "Vision" actions:

  • Learn where your governing body is headed. What do they consider important? What is their vision?
  • Share that vision with your co-workers.
  • Decide how you and your team can specifically support the vision.
  • Make recommendations that show you understand the vision.
  • Realize that in all probability you are not going to change the vision significantly. Only the citizens who directly or indirectly elect your governing body are able to do that.

2. Trust

"Where there is trust," declared Stopfer, "we can talk about ways to achieve the vision."

Cannady added, "Tell me what you think. What is your reasoning?"

Stopfer agreed: "I don't want someone waiting for me to state my position, then tell me what they think I want to hear."

Cannady clarified further: "If we question, it is not a rejection. If we have all the facts, we can make better decisions."

Trust sounds easy, but it isn't always. Trust leaves us vulnerable. Trust calls for your best judgment first. But that's what professionals do. We examine, we propose, we lead.

If you receive a request for information from your governing body, you should provide all you can and then some. Don't withhold details that you think might weaken your position. If something comes to light later — and it always does — the only one to look bad will be you. Trust assumes that your councilman, trustee or commissioner is able to make a sound judgment call based on having all the information.

Here are some actions based on "Trust":

  • Give your governing body all the information you reasonably can.
  • Present your best reasoning to support your recommendations.
  • Include negative findings.
  • Be prepared to answer questions.
  • Don't take questions personally or see them as a threat.

3. Respect

Purchasing pros like to talk about wanting respect. We don't feel like we get the same acknowledgment and credit that other professionals do. There may be some truth there, but a greater truism is that respect is a two-way street.

Cannady wisely noted: "Respect is like the golden rule." You gain respect by giving respect.

Respect opens the door to communication. Communication helps all parties realize they may share a common vision, but still may have differing views on methods. The heart of respect is accepting the other person's motives as open and sincere, and then making a genuine effort to understand what is being said and done.

It is very rare for a councilman, board member or commissioner to vote against a project or a recommendation without giving some reason for his actions. Listening carefully to that reasoning will certainly give you insight into his objection in a particular case, but it will also give you valuable insight into his overall concerns and values. Armed with that knowledge, you are in a better position to make future presentations and recommendations.

When Stopfer reminded me that "staff has to operate within certain parameters," he was not only talking about policies and procedures but also about personal conduct. A public disagreement between a staff member and a councilman, commissioner or board member is not as rare as it may seem. When such an open display of poor judgment happens, not only does the staff member inevitably lose the issue, but the respect is lost and rarely regained.

Here are some "Respect" actions to consider:

  • To gain respect, give respect.
  • Avoid negative comments to third parties about your governing body.
  • Remain professional in your written and verbal communications.
  • Don't raise an issue or make a recommendation that places a governing board member in an embarrassing position.
  • Accept that there will be differing opinions even among folks committed to the same goals and vision.

4. Preparation

Remember in school when you were surprised by a test you had forgotten about? You tried to bluff your way through, but it became evident to you, and ultimately to the teacher, that you hadn't prepared. In school that might only be a temporary setback, but in the world of work such lack of preparation could be career-stifling.

Prepare, communicate, cover everything, be ready for anything. No last-minute surprises should catch your governing body off-guard. It's hard to build a strong relationship with an elected official who has been embarrassed because of your lack of preparation.

"Tell us about the competition," Stopfer exhorted. "We want to know that the competitive process was fair."

When a vendor protests, you pull out all the stops to defend your decision. Your governing body deserves the same level of commitment. Even if your agenda process does not allow you to provide extensive, supporting documentation in written form, you should accumulate all the facts and details you can as "hip pocket" information — facts you can summon at a moment's notice.

If your manager or director is the person who may be called on, he or she needs all the pertinent information you can provide. No one really likes to tell the governing body, "I'll have to get back to you with that information." Conversely, when the body sees that purchasing has made a recommendation based on a comprehensive knowledge of the facts, they are more likely to look closer at the recommendation.

"Do your homework," said Cannady. "Protect us with the facts. That allows us to make the best decision. We want to know you've looked at all sides of an issue, because I need to do the same."

"I need to understand how we got to this point," Stopfer added. "Then if I get a call, I can be sure that we've been fair."

These "Preparation" actions are a good place to start:

  • Do your homework.
  • Focus on facts, not opinions.
  • Be open to seeing other viewpoints.
  • Understand how competing vendors might view your recommendations.
  • Conduct legitimate processes than can be defended on a rational basis.

5. Shoes (As in, walk a mile in theirs.)

You remember the old adage about not judging someone until you walk a mile in his or her shoes. It should be no surprise that members of your governing body have different shoes than you do.

Cannady summed up the unique-fitting boots she wears: "We see things from a different perspective. We are closer to the citizens."

Stopfer reiterated that view: "We keep our thumb on the pulse of the community."

When an agenda item is posted, vendors may call you if they have concerns about a particular award. However, when citizens have concerns, they are going to call a council or commission member. Being accountable to the public means that commissioners, council members and trustees are the ones most likely to hear concerns from the public.

Sometimes the questions come before a meeting, sometimes during, sometimes after. Members of a governing body are aware that they may be called upon to explain or defend their actions on any number of issues, so they want to make sure they have all the facts. The questions they raise are not so much fault-finding as fact-finding. Cannady put it succinctly, "What would you ask if you were on the Council?"

One simple "Shoe" action covers it all:

  • Walk in their shoes and you'll see things from another perspective, and that will strengthen the relationship you have with your governing body.

About the author

Ed Matthews, CPPO, now lives in Central Florida after semi-retiring from a career in retail management and 10 years in public purchasing, most recently as Purchasing Manager for the City of Irving, Texas.