While Ireland is a recognised leader in the use of e-procurement across the public sector, the same cannot be said of its record in collecting and analysing public procurement data. This case describes overcoming this problem by innovatively leveraging Ireland’s e-procurement database of over 4,000 buyers and 70,000 suppliers. Policy impact has already resulted from this approach. Central to its success was collaboration between academia, industry and the public sector.
Organization(s) Dublin City University Business School
Organization Type(s) Academia
Primary thematic focus - entry window Use of ICT to improve performance of procurement systems
Sub-thematic focus Managing procurement systems for enhanced performance
This case is innovative because: It identified and seized on the potential of Ireland’s e-procurement database to research public procurement. Academia, industry actors and the public sector collaborated to make possible the mapping of Irish public procurement. A major research project was undertaken in a cost neutral, environmentally-friendly way.
Until recently little if any data existed on the Irish public procurement market. This made the task of policy impact assessment difficult and left all stakeholders – procurers, suppliers, policy makers, researchers - in the dark as regards public procurement trends. Finding a solution to this problem had assumed priority.
Based in Dublin City University Business School, Ireland, the Strategic Procurement Research Unit (SPRU www.winningintendering.eu) contemplated this ‘knowledge deficit’ on Irish public procurement. The challenge for SPRU was how to profile a market that was dispersed and fragmented and had never been researched in any meaningful way. Initially this challenge seemed insurmountable but by ‘thinking outside the box’ a way forward soon presented itself.
If identifying and seizing upon opportunity defines innovative activity, then SPRU’s actions can certainly be classed as innovative. Firstly, SPRU identified that owing to migration to e-procurement, a database of over 4,000 buyers and 70,000 suppliers active in the Irish public procurement market existed. This was the research population SPRU needed to access.
The next step was to seize this identified opportunity. SPRU did just this by striking up a working partnership with the National Procurement Service of Ireland (NPS). The NPS has ultimate control over Ireland’s e-procurement portal and its database of buyers and suppliers. Impressed by the merits of SPRU’s idea, the NPS agreed to partner SPRU in utilising the e-procurement database to carry out Ireland’s first national survey of public procurement practice.
With access granted in the autumn of 2011, SPRU began work on designing an online survey instrument that would baseline public procurement practice. This was to represent Ireland’s inaugural national public procurement survey and, as such, elicited much debate on what data was to be captured and how various procurement practices and behaviours were to be measured. SPRU had to work off a blank canvas but used this as an opportunity to explore cotemporary challenges in procurement.
The survey was innovative in its design. It allowed for comparison to be made of buyers and suppliers responses on the same or similar questions and topics. For example, both buyers and suppliers were asked whether they thought the Irish public procurement market had become more business friendly or less business friendly over the last 3 years. SPRU was firmly of the opinion that both buyer and supplier perspectives were needed in mapping Irish public procurement. The survey also made use of the latest data collection software, in this case Survey Monkey.
Throughout this period SPRU maintained ongoing contact with its partner, NPS, to keep them informed of progress and to solicit their advice and expertise on certain issues. Additionally, SPRU used its industry contacts to develop and pilot the survey. After piloting the survey with 30 industry experts and making the necessary adjustments on foot of suggestions offered, the survey went live in December 2011 to over 4,000 buyers and 70,000 suppliers. This step was repeated exactly one week after the first e-mailing.
Risk is inherent when trying something innovative and new. However, any sense of apprehension felt by SPRU on whether the plan would succeed or fail quickly gave way to a sense of satisfaction as thousands of responses poured in on the first day. Of all registered users who received the survey, over 4235 suppliers and 608 public sector procurers responded, making the survey a resounding success. Not only was the response rate a success in itself, it yielded data essential to understanding the profile and workings of the Irish public procurement market. SPRU’s central objective had been achieved.
For the first time ever, public procurement in Ireland is baselined. The profile of buyers and suppliers is now known, buyer-supplier interaction has been assessed, the impact of e-procurement on buyer and supplier roles has been documented and the translation of procurement policy into practice has been analysed.
The culmination of the survey’s findings has taken the form of the “Opportunities in Public Sector Procurement Report”, which was launched by Ministers of State Brian Hayes and John Perry in the Irish parliament on the 7th of March, 2012 (copy attached). This report will inform and guide future policy and practice in Irish public procurement.
Findings from the survey not only reveal what has happened in the public procurement market but, equally, what is likely to happen in future. For example, it was found that 40% of suppliers intend to increase their tendering activity in 2012, something of which all procurement stakeholders should take note.
Agreement has been secured with the NPS to continue the survey on an annual basis and benchmark procurement performance from year to year. Additionally, from SPRU’s innovative proposal has emerged a strategic partnership with the NPS, which will prove vital for future research.
Looking beyond Ireland, this is an initiative that other countries can easily exploit, especially given the pervasiveness of e-procurement portals. Furthermore, the cost and resource implications are negligible and online surveying is environmentally-friendly. However, survey fatigue on the part of buyers and suppliers is one potential obstacle that researchers should note.
Don’t be afraid to think ‘outside the box’: what at first seemed an insurmountable problem became easily solvable once SPRU identified and grasped the potential of e-procurement databases.
Seize opportunities when they present themselves: the SPRU was proactive in creating access for itself to the e-procurement database of buyers and suppliers. This ‘can-do’ attitude paid off handsomely.
Nurture partnerships with key stakeholders: in the absence of NPS support the initiative would never have got off the ground. The SPRU’s industry contacts proved invaluable in devising, testing and promoting the survey across the private sector.
Devise a project plan and manage by objectives: SPRU spent approximately 4 months bringing its innovation solution to a practical problem from conception to fruition. To maximise chances of success, a project plan was created, a project leader appointed, and key milestones linked to the achievement of specific objectives set down. This enabled co-ordination and focus throughout the project.
Among the key difficulties was prioritising data to be captured. This issue was resolved through consultation with key public procurement stakeholders who advised on desirable questions and topics for inclusion in the survey.
A reduction in the number of survey questions along with more targeted questioning on contemporary topics such as “green procurement” are among the changes mooted.
Advice to others: complex problems are never insurmountable. All that is needed is ingenuity to deploy existing resources in innovative ways, such as SPRU did in leveraging e-procurement databases to map Irish public procurement.
Author: Anthony Flynn
Author's Organization: Dublin City University
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