07 August 2003
A London council is willing to appoint a head of strategic procurement with no purchasing experience. David Arminas looks at whether it matters
"Wanted: head of strategic procurement. No previous experience necessary." These are words to make the blood boil for thousands of hardworking, dedicated procurement professionals.
The London Borough of Haringey's advertisement with words to this effect flies in the face of everything that the profession has struggled to achieve in the past decade. Most importantly, that purchasing's particular managerial skills and business acumen can help to reach an organisation's business goals.
Little wonder then that there is uproar over the perceived audacity of Sally Brooks, the council's former head of strategic procurement, to deny that recognition.
Many purchasers will echo the feelings of Andy Davies, head of procurement at Surrey County Council, who is "amazed" and "sad" at Haringey's decision.
"I'm simply very surprised that a purchasing department with such a good record and high level of achievement is so open to appointing a head with no experience of procurement," he says. "The Byatt report on local government clearly said it is important to invest in professional purchasers and training. It's a step backwards for local government and for the purchasing profession."
There lies the key question raised by Haringey's offending advertisement. Is the council's willingness to appoint someone with no direct involvement in procurement detrimental, first to the council itself, and second to the profession in general?
The answer to the first question about the effect on the council can be found in the Audit Commission's report last February.
It had heavily criticised Haringey in 2001 for having no procurement strategy at all. But this year the commission praised the council's outsourcing deal to provide strategic education management as one of the six best contracts in operation in the country. "The corporate procurement strategy provides clear and challenging aims for procurement and how it will support the delivery of the council's priorities," it said.
On this score, Haringey's procurement has risen to Byatt's challenge to make purchasers think about the bigger picture of benefiting the taxpayer. Also, the commission apparently had no beef with the fact that Brooks is not a procurement professional.
She has not ruled out appointing someone with a procurement background and a CIPS qualification. What she has said is they must compete against people from other professions with similar skills such as the ability to think strategically and deliver a council's business objectives. In this sense she has thrown down the gauntlet to purchasers.
The answer to whether Haringey's decision is detrimental to the profession is more disturbing. Brooks's decision to look beyond the ranks of procurement should be a warning. There is a growing supply of people from other functions and general management entering senior procurement roles.
John Carter, head of the IT practice at recruitment company Hoggett Bowers, notes that many IT specialists are involved in procurement issues, including contract negotiations and management at the highest levels. This is particularly true with the increased development and use of e-procurement and related technology.
He adds that purchasers leading a cross-functional team of experts can be victims of their own success. They have shown people from other disciplines that there is a great future in procurement and trained them well.
But Haringey's example is potentially dangerous in another respect. It is one thing for a council with a successful procurement department to seek someone with the right strategic and managerial skills from outside the profession. But it is another for a council with a non-existent or poor procurement department to appoint someone with no purchasing background, believing their skills are not essential.
These are the cases where the procurement profession arguably should expend its energies, because the benefits of its skills have yet to be recognised.
Peter Howarth, a consultant and head of the CIPS local authorities committee, calls the Haringey affair a "shot across the bows of the profession".
"I am surprised that Haringey did not call for some direct procurement experience," he says. "But the affair is indicative of the shortage of procurement skills in local government, and traditional purchasers must develop these project and strategic management skills."
In other words, rise to the challenge.