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Commentary: How to Professionalize the Field of Procurement

“In my opinion, procurement officials stand out as underpaid, given the skill level required for success, and they are often underappreciated, considering the impact — for better or worse — their decisions have on government operations,” says Daniel C. Kim, former director of the California Department of General Services.

Today’s labor market is extremely competitive when it comes to hiring the best and the brightest. This is doubly so for government, where pay in many occupations is appreciably lower than the private sector. Couple this with the Silver Tsunami of retirements, and you have a major problem with public-sector recruitment and retention.

But we all know this. What’s much harder to figure out is how to fix this given our fiscal constraints. Sure, we can raise public-sector salaries, but state and local revenue — even in good years — is never enough to match what the private sector pays.

What we need instead are strategic ways to recruit and retain public-sector employees whose job functions require:
  • A high degree of technical mastery
  • Skill sets easily transferrable to the private sector
  • Extensive knowledge in government administration that can’t be found elsewhere
  • Decision-making that has significant consequence to statewide operations

We need to target those job functions that fall under these criteria by offering fiscal incentives that will not only improve recruitment and retention but also promote skills development and better government operations.

As the former director of the California Department of General Services with 25-plus years of executive-level experience in state and local government, I have worked with hundreds of different job classifications and functions. In my opinion, procurement officials stand out as underpaid, given the skill level required for success, and they are often underappreciated, considering the impact — for better or worse — their decisions have on government operations.

In many state and local governments, the staff who write the bid specifications, determine the awarding criteria, prepare the RFP narrative, respond to bidder questions, help select the winning bidder, and negotiate contract terms are often paid at a rate like other administrative positions. There is no appreciable pay difference for procurement officials who, if they do their job well, must have strong technical skills, project management experience, a collaborative mindset, strategic sensibility, and intestinal fortitude. These public-sector employees are making critical decisions that impact statewide IT projects costing in the hundreds of millions of dollars. If they do their job poorly, procurement officials may be responsible for lengthy delays, vendor protests, litigation and/or poor vendor performance — all of which may cost the state considerably in terms of money, service delivery, and reputation.

So how do we decide who gets paid more as a procurement official? That’s a good question. Many hands often touch a procurement, so there often is no bright line to distinguish who is doing a key procurement function. But here’s what I’d like to propose for consideration:

Create procurement-specific job classifications — State and local governments may consider creating different job classifications for procurement officials. These positions could pay more than other types of administrative or operational positions. While this option has its merits, it goes against the general direction to streamline public-sector hiring by reducing the number of job classifications since the multitude of job classifications often confuses job applicants and limits outside recruitment.

Provide a pay differential for all procurement staff — According to CalHR, “a pay differential is special additional pay recognizing unusual competencies, circumstances, or working conditions applying to some or all incumbents in select classes.” The state of California currently offers 400-plus pay differentials, and most local governments offer pay differentials for job functions that are difficult to recruit or require a higher degree of skill. Similarly, we can and should offer a pay differential to procurement staff who are instrumental in issuing and awarding solicitations. Currently, the state offers no such pay differential.

Provide a pay differential for procurement staff certified as procurement professionals — A more targeted option may be to promote and provide financial incentives for those procurement staff who receive professional certification in their field. Fortunately, there are two very reputable professional certifications already offered for procurement officials. The Universal Public Procurement Certification Council, which was jointly formed by the Institute of Government Purchasing Inc. and the National Association of State Procurement Officials, is a nonprofit organization that governs and administers the Certified Public Procurement Officer (CPPO) and Certified Professional Public Buyer (CPPB) certification programs. The CPPO and CPPB are rigorous programs specifically tailored for public procurement officials. The state and local governments should incentivize procurement staff to get CPPO- or CPPB-certified by paying for training and offering a significant salary differential for those procurement officials who receive certification. This type of targeted fiscal incentive may offer government the best “bang for the buck” when it comes to improving state operations through better procurement practices.

I share these options for consideration because procurement must be recognized as a critical function within government. We need to professionalize this field and elevate it as a profession. Procurement shouldn’t be something that people just fall into; rather, it should be recognized and rewarded as a highly respected career path for those who want to make a difference in government. Financial incentives can help generate greater interest in procurement as a profession. Perhaps more significantly, professional certification can promote greater standardization and use of best practices, along with a stronger grounding in ethics — all of which will lead to better products and services at a lower price for improved outcomes in state and local government.
Daniel C. Kim is a longtime executive with experience in policy and legislative affairs, government procurement and state and local government leadership, as well as in the private sector. In state government, he has served as chief deputy director for operations with the California Department of Public Health and director of the California Department of General Services, the state’s business and purchasing office. He received his bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Kim, a Sacramento resident, is now director of procurement for the Weideman Group Inc.