Here is a response to the last issue's Procurement Ponderable. The scenario, provided by a group of graduate students in a procurement and ethics course at Old Dominion University, described a hypothetical City Manager of a medium-sized local government. The City Manager directs the Chief Procurement Officer to execute a sole-source, long-term contract for vehicle emissions testing with a firm he often used in the past. On the job for only two weeks, the Chief Procurement Officer has more than 10 years of experience in procurement, although this is his first job at the director level. He learns through research that there are many firms capable of performing the vehicle emissions testing service just as well, and that the "suggested" firm has a less-than-stellar record of performance going back several years.

The following response comes from Phillip Ellison, MBA, C.P.M., CPSM, RTSBA, an NIGP member and Board Member of the National Procurement Institute (NPI). After practicing procurement for six years in multiple industries in the private sector, he spent nine years in higher education and healthcare and the last four as Executive Director of Supply Chain Services at Spring Independent School District in Texas.

I have been approached too many times lately regarding similar circumstances. In fact, there are only two options — break the law or don't break the law.

After my first couple of years of floundering in the public sector, it became quite evident [to me] that we, as agents of our public entity, have a fiduciary responsibility to follow the laws we have been hired to maintain. There are few things more comfortable than the reassurance that laws, or policies, are on our side.

I believe the question stems from a much larger issue: Is this job worth me breaking the law or, at the very least, sacrificing my ethics? When approached with the original question, the conversation usually boils down to my mantra regarding employment: I'd much rather work for a horrible company with a fantastic supervisor, than for a fantastic company with a horrible supervisor. (Actually, rarely does either happen, as great supervisor/leaders are usually attracted to great companies.) Also, I remind them of the three pillars of my Supply Chain Services organization — Compliance, Customer Service, and Value Creation, in that order.

Many times, our internal customers want what they want, when they want it. And, they don't really care how we get it. Our job, as professional public procurement officers, is to ensure we follow the requirements placed on us as agents for our entity. This means we must be concerned with how our customers get what they want. Also, as liaisons between our internal customers and our vendor community, we must protect both, ensuring we procure what we need at the best value for our entity, without "beating up" our vendor, or driving them out of business by forcing them to sell at no margin, or below cost, in order for them to keep our business.

In order to do this we must level-set the expectations of our customers by educating them on our procedures, lead times, and processing times. In doing so, we reduce their false expectations and reduce the image of the procurement team as being a roadblock rather than a facilitator. That level-setting of expectations should begin with a sobering conversation with any new supervisor.

Whether it's an interview for a purchasing manager position, or the first meeting between the existing purchasing manager and a new supervisor, groundwork must be established regarding the roles of each when it comes to procurement. The purchasing manager must have the full support of the supervisor in order to carry the weight and have the credibility of his or her responsibility. If customer service must be compromised or monetary savings forfeited in order to meet a compliance requirement, the supervisor must support such decisions. Of course, the purchasing manager also has a responsibility to notify the supervisor of such incidents should issues be elevated to the supervisor, so he or she is not caught off guard.

Anyone who supervises the purchasing and contracts function of a public entity must have a firm trust in the abilities of the procurement manager and that they are competent in their duties. This can either be attained by knowing their background or through training and professional development. The supervisor must support the actions of the purchasing team. That includes not asking the team to do anything that conflicts with their charge, or siding with an internal customer who is asking the same.

Bottom line: Procurement professionals must be willing to face the sometimes cold, hard truths of their profession. If they lack the support of their supervisor and must decide whether to sacrifice their ethics or break the law in order to do their job, is that a job worth having? If not, change jobs. If so, then seek legal means to address the improprieties to which you are being subjected.

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Government Procurement magazine publishes articles about successes in the practice of public procurement. We are especially interested in topics such as green purchasing, strategic sourcing, spend management and innovative approaches to the practice of procurement. What is your procurement entity doing that is innovative and would be interesting to Government Procurement readers?

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