When elected officials sneeze, government buyers catch the cold

Posted on November 25, 2010


You gotta love the world of public sector procurement as the myriad of competing interests that mark the convergence of short-term elected official rhetoric and long-suffering bureaucratic sensibilities rarely if ever aligns into a cohesive purchasing strategy.

Like the sentiment that is reflected in the statement when the United States sneezes, Canada catches a cold (or a derivative thereof), which is often used to describe our country’s relationship with our large neighbor to the south, the same general uneasiness is prevalent amongst the government’s rank and file when proclamations regarding budget cuts and tighter spending rules are espoused by the peoples representatives.

A kind of here we go again malaise that was best summed up by a senior bureaucrat who in confidence told me that for those employed within the public sector, such pronouncements of austerity and increased accountability by those elected to power ultimately carry little weight because “in 2 or 3 years they will be gone, “but we will still be here.”

In short, and beyond the acute consequences of an announcement along the lines of the Harper Government’s recent call for tighter spending rules, those on the front lines consider the associated machinations as being little more than an operational nuisance from grandstanding politicians.

This of course got me to thinking . . . to what extent do those elected to office truly understand the consequences of their policy decisions?  Are they actually basing their strategies on a firm knowledge of the lay of the land so to speak, including the real-world impact of their intended actions from a practical execution standpoint?  Or, and as many within the bureaucratic realms of the public sector strongly contend, are the majority of broad brush pronouncements based more on anecdotal evidence of convenience in which sizzle takes precedence over substance?

It is indeed an eclectic mix of competing interests that in more cases than not results in a form of perpetual inertia where little beyond the flurry of reactive activity immediately following a major announcement produces any meaningful and sustaining value.

Do not misread what I am saying here, this is not a question of right versus wrong or an us against them (at least it shouldn’t be) paradox, but one of differing priorities.

While the at times school yard my Dad is bigger than your dad antics associated with debate in the political arena is simultaneously annoying and entertaining Ad Nauseum, it does reflect the reality of the life of an elected official whose constituents have little time for understanding an issue beyond a snappy and often ineffectual media sound bite.

This means that political motivation is driven and rewarded by reactive prose that ultimately dissolves into yesterday’s news of disinterested amnesia.  Kind of like a building that burns down.  Once the fire is out, very few people actually stick around to see the ground being razed and a new structure erected in place of the old.

It is of course in these latter stage realms of today’s combustible hot issue that the “permanent” workers of the bureaucracy operate in a kind of forgotten vacuum of anonymity bearing fully the consequences of a directional change that is often triggered by little more than a few choice words of public appeasement and political posturing.  Now you see where the sneeze-cold analogy comes into play.

The real question that needs to be asked (and answered) is simply this; can you effectively reconcile the interests of a short-term interloper with the tangible, everyday needs of a long-term player?  And if you can’t, then how do you adaptively integrate competing interests so as to minimize the mid to long-term negative consequences that further widens the somewhat contemptuous chasm between transient partners?

The answer as my good friend and bestselling author of the book The Black Belt Mindset Jim Bouchard is prone to say is a “simple, not easy” approach, starting with the understanding that the present key motivators for opposing stakeholders are forever relegated to a you say toe-may-toe and I say toe-ma-toe disconnect.  In other words, politicians will never look beyond the conceptual elements of an issue to truly understand the inner workings of making their edicts from the throne reality.  Nor, it would seem reasonable to assume, that those who are charged with the day-to-day execution associated with achieving targeted deliverables completely agree with said directional changes in the absence of a collaborative acknowledgment of what does and does not work in the real-world.

From this agree to disagree starting point, in which the 300 pound gorilla in the room is finally acknowledged by everyone, the focus can then shift to the task at hand which is how to deliver maximum value to the taxpayer through achievable goals that satiate political aims without sacrificing functional efficiency on the front lines.  A bridge of cooperative effort if you will, facilitated by a neutral third-party whose sole focus is a collective best result outcome in as short a time period as possible.

Unfortunately, and given the nature of traditional consulting models which served more as a guaranteed annuity (re certain cash flow) for consulting firms, and in which co-dependence was the order of the day, such a facilitation was an impossibility.

That has now changed with the emergence of the non-consultancy model in which the time line between advice given and plan execution is a matter of months if not weeks.  Specifically, rather than an overarching initiative that rambles for years toward and indeterminate goal, today’s consulting specialists are quick work artists who cut to the chase and make things happen so as to free them up to pursue other projects in a kind of nomadic flurry.

This development in conjunction with the advent of Software-as-a-Service “SaaS” solutions which eschew heavily capitalized licensing/maintenance fees in favor of transaction-based fees that like an ATM machine are tallied against actual versus intended usage, has created a sense of urgency on the part of the consultant/SaaS vendors relative to the practical implementation of a viable initiative.  Basically, a performance driven model that shifts the focus to one of getting the job done . . . period.

Even though I do not want to minimize the obvious complexity associated with implementing a public sector procurement strategy, the indisputable and direct correlation between the loss of time and the loss of revenue means that consultants and SaaS vendors are less likely to fall into what IACCM’s Tim Cummins would call the lying game.  (Note: For those who may not be familiar with Tim’s Commitment Matters Blog, you should definitely check it out.)

In his September 1st post titled “The Power Of Negotiation” Tim references the recent ‘A Conspiracy of Optimism’ paper from the International Center For Complex Project Management, which identified the ‘conspiracy’ that leads executives on both sides of the table to ‘lie’ to their trading partners and to create a combined version of ‘the truth’ that leads to mutual delusion over what they can achieve, by when and for how much.

Under the new non-consultancy model, there is no place for this kind of delusional activity meaning that consultants and SaaS vendors will become proficient at cutting through the traditional distractions to provide a clear outline of what will and will not work.

From the political side of the equation, elected officials will now have a resource that will help them to quantify what their belt-tightening – increased taxpayer value mantra actually means in terms of operational impact.

From the standpoint of the bureaucracy itself re government buyers etc. this new model means that front line personnel will be engaged from the start as understanding the true execution pain points is essential to project success.  And as previously stated, project success equals consultant/vendor revenue.

In the end, this win without ambivalent acquiescence to the uninformed interests of a key stakeholder required a point of common ground.  The non-consultancy firms and SaaS vendors represents that long-awaited common ground through which a mutual if not shared benefit will be realized.