'No more excuses'

16 March 2009

16 March 2009 | Martha McKenzie- Minifie

Barack Obama has talked a lot about procurement. But will the profession turn his words into action? asks Martha McKenzie-Minifie

It started before voters even got to the ballot box: US presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to save $40 billion (£29.1 billion) with smarter public buying.

After the victorious Obama took office, he let loose again, hitting the headlines when he responded to a question about the troubled purchase of a new Marine One fleet of 28 helicopters by describing it as a "procurement process gone amok".

Next in his sights is defence buying. As he detailed this month plans to rein in public contracting excesses, Obama pointed to a US Government Accountability Office study of 95 major defence projects last year that found $295 billion (£214.4 billion) in cost over-runs.

"No more excuses, no more delays," he told officials and the public. "The days of giving defence contractors a blank cheque are over."

He claimed instances of "outright fraud" happened as government spending on contracts doubled in the last eight years to more than half a trillion dollars.

It's a picture of a bold and steady focus on procurement. And one that many in the profession say is overdue.

Claims of planned improvements to public sector purchasing are often made by governments and opposition parties, but are rarely under such a bright spotlight as in the last few months. Commentators say this focus on such a high-profile figure is uncommon - and could have a significant flow around the globe.

Peter Smith, managing director of consultancy Procurement Excellence, says: "It's gratifying to see the most powerful man in the world talking about our profession. It will be interesting to see if public procurement becomes an issue in the UK for the next election."

David Read, chief executive of Prestige Purchasing, agrees. He has never heard a US president speak as much or as authoritatively on procurement as Obama has, and says the profile of the profession is raised.

According to Craig Cherry, head of group procurement at Monarch Airlines, the US authorities will face similar challenges to their counterparts in the UK - and worldwide - of turning rhetoric into reality.

But Paul Lucas, head of group procurement at education software and services provider RM, says the UK is ahead of the US in talking about smart public spending.

Lucas says pledges from across the Atlantic to do better are welcome, but the true test is following up with real change.

Obama says his teams are working on ways to turn the promises into reality. The immediate steps include: developing tough new guidelines on contracting by the end of September, stopping outsourcing of services that should be performed by government, and opening up the contracting process to small businesses.

With the initial plans under way, indications are that purchasing will continue to be in the spotlight for some time.

As Obama said this month, "This is just one more aspect of the kind of reform that's going to be crucial in the months and years to come."

SMmar2009

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