What exactly is a public procurement professional? Have you ever considered whether public procurement is a job or truly a profession?

Webster's New College Dictionary (1995) defines a profession as "an occupation or vocation requiring training in the liberal arts or the sciences and advanced study in a specialized field" or "the body of qualified persons of a specific occupation or field."

Classically, there were only three professions - divinity, medicine and law. Each profession was characterized by the formation of a full-time occupation, a formal training school, a formal university program, the establishment of local and national associations, a code of professional ethics, and regulation of entrance into the profession (i.e., certification, licensure).

Considering these characteristics may remind you of the certifications available to public procurement - the CPPO and CPPB. But can you think of a public procurement degree program at a university or college?

They do exist, but often as part of another degree program, or at an advanced degree level. For example, The George Washington University School of Law offers an LL.M. in Government Procurement Law, and Florida Atlantic University (FAU) offers a Certificate in Public Procurement (undergraduate students) and Executive Certificate in Public Procurement (graduate students).

The road to professionalism

When we hire an attorney, we make sure they were admitted to the Bar. That's because we know that admission to the State's Bar requires rigorous education and adherence to professional standards. Admission to the Bar is seen at least as a "stamp of formal approval" of being a legal professional who is fit for practice.

Thinking of an attorney as a "professional" seems easy to most of us, no doubt because the legal profession is one of the original, classic, professions. It has been around and maturing for centuries.

As professions grow and mature over time, there are critical junctures along the continuum. That critical juncture for the legal profession occurred in the fourth century when individuals began to have to register with the bar of a court to argue before it. By the sixth century, a full 200 years later, a regular course of legal study, lasting about four years, was required for admission.

At a critical juncture

Similar to the legal profession's history, that critical juncture has arrived for the public procurement profession. Many of the key milestones mentioned above are already in place for public procurement but have been applied in an ad hoc manner. The National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) recognized this, and much as the emperors of Ancient Rome defined the legal profession, NIGP set out to establish clear guidelines for the public procurement "profession."

In its 2009-2012 Strategic Plan, the NIGP Board set a goal to develop a set of guiding principles that would serve the public procurement profession by providing standardized guidance for day-to-day operations. These principles were intended to create an ongoing organizational conversation about why and how individuals should behave as procurement professionals.

The journey began when 2009 NIGP President Paul Brennan appointed three people to oversee the project: Marcheta Gillespie, task force chair; Dr. Cliff McCue of the Public Procurement Research Center (PPRC) at Florida Atlantic University; and Tina M. Borger, NIGP's research director.

Brennan also appointed seven NIGP members to the task force to develop the Guiding Principles: Sharon T. (Gentry) Lewis, CPPB, VCO, A.P.P., purchasing manager, City of Roanoke, Va.; Mary Beth Overturf, CPPO, C.P.M., director of general services, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska; Jeanette Rennie, C.P.P., senior contracts officer, World Bank, Washington, D.C.; Adam L. Smith, CPPB, MA, JD, chief procurement officer, city of Atlanta; Stephanie R. Williams, CPPO, CPPB, assistant director, Division of Technology Services Procurement, Commonwealth of Kentucky; and Brett M. Wood, CPPB, senior purchasing administrator, Johnson County, Kan.

Armed with research on 44 sets of guiding principles from nations and non-governmental organizations (NGO) around the world, the task force met at the NIGP offices in Herndon, Va., on Dec. 10-11, 2009, for what became affectionately known as the "Herndon Project."

The task force set out to develop the Guiding Principles, but soon realized that the profession had to collectively define what it valued. After considerable debate, the following core values were identified by the task force: Accountability, Ethics, Impartiality, Professionalism, Transparency and Service. Once the values were defined, the task force moved on to developing the Guiding Principles.

Values and Guiding Principles

Public comments were solicited through emails, various social media sites, the Sector Spotlight, the NIGP website, and a new website (www.principlesandpractices.org), which was created to allow for public "discussion." More than 200 public comments were received. Based on those comments and serious debate among the project leadership, the original Values and Guiding Principles were revised.

The final Values and Guiding Principles were given approval by the task force and sent to the NIGP Board of Directors for adoption in October 2010. Project leadership and task force members waited in anticipation for the historical announcement that followed on October 23, 2010: NIGP's Board of Directors had officially adopted the Values and Guiding Principles.

Following this announcement, the Values and Guiding Principles Project gained even greater momentum and acceptance in the public sector. By January 2011, the Values and Guiding Principles boasted more than 35 supporting organizations, three endorsing/adopting organizations, and a supporting agency, the city of Tucson.

Supporting organizations included public procurement stakeholders from several areas, including: Association of Government Accountants (AGA); Canadian Public Procurement Council (CPPC); International City/ County Management Association (ICMA); Association of School Business Officials (ASBO); and others. A complete list of Supporting Organizations is maintained online at: www.principlesandpractices.org.

The Canadian Public Procurement Council (CPPC) was the first supporting organization to become an endorsing Organization. In addition, further support from the Canadian public sector came with the unexpected $5,000 donation from Ontario Public Buyer's Association (OPBA), an NIGP chapter. These events point to an optimistic future for the endorsement and final adoption of the Values and Guiding Principles by a large portion of the U.S. and Canadian public sector.

The next step in this historical journey is also under way with the creation of Standards of Practice. The Standards are expected to build further and in greater detail on the Values and Guiding Principles. Once again, this is expected to be a collaborative adventure with NIGP leading the way.

Thus far the review team for the Standards of Practice is comprised of more than 62 individuals representing key stakeholder groups. Review team members range in professional discipline from contract specialists, to legal counsel, to state auditors, to professors. Some members of the review team are young in the profession while others have many years of wisdom and experience.

The convergence of all of these factors, driven by modern technologies, has moved much faster than the 200-year process of Ancient Rome and has truly resulted in a monumental, collaborative process that is sure to produce the most comprehensive guidance for the public procurement profession to date.

It is NIGP's vision to raise the level of the public procurement profession to levels similar to that of the classic professions. The journey to achieving this goal is certainly under way, and with the support of procurement professionals, and other key stakeholder groups, it will continue.

Perhaps, there will come a day when you no longer have to explain to someone what being, or becoming, a public procurement professional entails. They will just know.


AllAttorneys. (2010). History of law profession. Retrieved on Jan. 24, 2011, from http://www.allattorneysweb.com/fundamentals/law-profession.htm

FAU. (2010). Florida Atlantic University: Public Procurement Research Center. Retrieved on Jan. 24, 2011 from www.fau.edu

GWU. (2010). LL.M. in government procurement law. Retrieved on Jan. 24, 2011 from http://www.law.gwu.edu/Academics/FocusAreas/govcon/Pages/LLM.aspx

Perks, R.W.(1993). Accounting and Society. London: Chapman & Hall.

About the authors

Dr. Clifford McCue is associate professor and director of the Public Procurement Research Center (PPRC) at Florida Atlantic University. Candace Riddle is standards of practice manager at NIGP.