What does the Trump presidency have to do with public sector procurement?

Glenn Bain asks, what is the connection between Donald Trump’s Presidency, public sector procurement and professionalism?

Glenn Bain

Before I explain the link between former US President Donald Trump, public sector procurement and professionalism, I need to explain the real reason I’m writing this piece – and that is the launch of a five-year campaign to professionalise public sector procurement in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ).

It is estimated that there are more than 10,000 public servants throughout ANZ that are directly employed in public sector procurement – but it is difficult to get an exact figure as defining who is primarily involved in this activity has been difficult.

These 10,000 public servants, employed in the Commonwealth, State and Territory public services, are responsible for procuring more than $200 billion ($200,000,000,000) worth of contracts for goods and services per annum:

In 2019-2020 the Commonwealth Government procurement contracts totalled $54 billion ($20.5 billion for goods and $33.5 billion for services).

States and Territories account for approximately $150 billion in procurement contracts per annum.

Add to this annual private-sector procurement contracts in excess of $200 billion – and you are looking at a combined procurement industry responsible for more than $400 billion ($400,000,000,000) per annum.

Why the push to professionalise public sector procurement, and what will it entail?

One of the driving factors to professionalise public sector procurement, is that in the current COVID-19 climate, governments all over the world are striving to leverage procurement spend to deliver a range of economic, environmental and social outcomes, as well as to stimulate the economy and support fiscal repair – and therefore investing in professionalising the procurement workforce will also help strengthen Australia’s economic productivity over the longer term.

Providing structure, baseline proficiencies, career paths and certification is also hoped to address the current under-supply of procurement professionals and expand the public sector procurement talent pool.

Over the last 80 years, the study of professionalism has grown and developed to the point where as long ago as 2009, a report to the British Government recognised more than ‘130 different professional sectors, in the United Kingdom’.

Most recently, sectors of the Australian economy that have pushed to professionalise, include accounting, auditing, financial planning, mortgage broking, engineering and strata management.

But what does it mean to be a profession?

The Australian Council of Professions defines a ‘Profession’ as:

‘ … a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others. It is inherent in the definition of a Profession that a code of ethics governs the activities of each Profession.  Such codes require behaviour and practice beyond the personal moral obligations of an individual.  They define and demand high standards of behaviour in respect to the services provided to the public and in dealing with professional colleagues.  Often these codes are enforced by the Profession and are acknowledged and accepted by the community.’

It also goes on to state:

‘Being a member of a Profession, e.g., a ‘Professional‘, is generally seen as an indicator of integrity, ethics, trust and expertise.’

In an interesting book, The Future of the Professions, 2015, it defines a profession as sharing four overlapping similarities:

  • They have specialist knowledge;
  • Their admission depends on credentials;
  • Their activities are regulated; and
  • They are bound by a common set of values.

So, with that in mind, professionalising ANZ public sector procurement, will mean:

  • Establishing a standard definition of the Procurement Profession.
  • Identifying the core procurement capabilities, and generic business skills, necessary for a procurement workforce to deliver successful procurement outcomes.
  • Developing a list of relevant government endorsed procurement training, educational qualifications and professional certifications.
  • Establishing a clear governance framework.
  • Managing the procurement function.
  • Establishing workforce capability standards to ensure that the procurement workforce and approval delegates have the appropriate skills to achieve procurement outcomes.  

It is also hoped to encourage new entrants into the procurement profession through promotion of the wide and varied opportunities it affords practitioners, such as:

  • A rewarding career with opportunities to make a lasting social, economic, and environmental impact to the wellbeing of local communities.
  • A chance to be part of a growing professional community with mobility between the public and private sector, and international employment opportunities.
  • Opportunities to strengthen specialist knowledge and interpersonal skills and acquire transferrable and highly sought-after skills that open doors to employment in many related professions.

So, back to the connection between Donald Trump, public sector procurement and professionalism – well, it comes from an article in National Affairs, a quarterly journal of essays, published through the American Enterprise Institute, titled: The War on Professionalism by Jonathon Rauch.

In this article Rauch argues that the Trump era highlighted ‘the benefits of professionalism in the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the President’.

Rauch argues that they could only have done this because of the ethics and integrity that went with being a professional.

I know what you might be thinking, and it is true that the ANZ public sector context is somewhat different to that in the US. As public servants here we proudly uphold the Westminster tradition of providing frank and fearless advice to ministers, and delivering on the policy of the government of the day.

Even so, reinforcing those qualities displayed by members of a profession, as identified by Raunch, through the development of a body of procurement professionals would add gravitas to that advice along with greater capability in delivering those outcomes.

So onward and upward to professionalising public sector procurement in Australia and New Zealand over the next five years.

Glenn Bain is the Chair of the Australasian Procurement and Construction Council.

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