FACE TO FACE
by David Mayerovitch
Karen Owen has a passion for procurement - and she gets to indulge it every day in the high-pressure atmosphere of Ontario's Shared Services Bureau (SSB). The three-year-old agency with a staff of 1200 provides its customers - the ministries of the provincial government - with a vast range of administrative services that were formerly handled by the ministries themselves.
Owen is director of the SSB's 150-member Strategic Procurement Branch, which she herself designed and built. It negotiates and manages enterprise-wide contracts for goods and services, meeting the ministries' needs for everything from pushpins to helicopters to advice on the privatization of jails. (Services in the area of information technology infrastructure are managed outside the SSB through the Office of the Corporate Chief Information Officer.)
"One of my first decisions was to entrench the term procurement as opposed to purchasing," she says. "I wanted our customers and staff to see us not as a transaction processor or a rulebook holder but as a much more strategic organization with a broader mandate: materiels management, supply chain management, contract management, advisory services, best practices."
The articulate and energetic Owen comes by her strategic vision not out of business-school theory but out of her practical experience working her way up from the ground floor in the Ontario Public Service. She began 29 years ago as an offset-press operator in a government print shop.
"I moved into purchasing by accident," she recalls. "I was managing print shops in the purchasing branch, and I wanted more of a challenge. So I volunteered to do absolutely anything! Eventually I got a job as a purchasing officer. It was a step back for me at the time, but I felt it was a better career move."
And that's what it turned out to be. Owen's long experience with public service procurement, and her enthusiasm for the work, has positioned her well to play a key part in the emerging new system.
By 1998 Ontario's Progressive Conservative government had reduced the annual budget for internal administration to $6 million from $9 million. The SSB was created to consolidate services and provide them efficiently and effectively.
"It is not just consolidation," Owen emphasizes, "it's a whole new business model. We're a zero-funded organization. We price our services; we define our commitments. We benchmark against the private sector, and we're developing a robust quality assurance function."
"One of our visions is to be the service provider of choice," she says. Currently, under a transition plan to get the SSB up and running, ministries are obliged to deal with it for most of their needs. But in some areas this is not mandatory - training and printing, for example. Ministries may go directly to the private sector for these - and other areas may eventually be opened up as well.
"So there is pressure on us to become competitive," says Owen. "We have a very strong emphasis on customer satisfaction."
The SSB makes life easier for customers by offering streamlined processes. Over 230 active contracts are maintained online, and ministries can order directly through them with a minimum of paperwork.
The vendor community is another high priority for Owen. She listens closely to vendors and is committed to providing them with the access, fairness and consistency that they want. "In the past," she says, "if you wanted to do business with the Ontario government, you didn't know which way to turn for what. Individual ministries bought things on their own in 18 different ways through 30 or 40 different purchasing offices, program managers purchased directly - it was a mishmash.
"My goal is that when you get a Request for Proposal from the Ontario government, it should be recognizable and consistent, with no ambiguity and a minimum of duplication within the documents."
Vendors - particularly the smaller ones - have also made it clear that they don't enjoy investing time and money in proposals and never hearing a word of feedback. Owen is working to fix this. "One of our best-practice initiatives is a debriefing process to help unsuccessful vendors learn how they might do better next time - and to help us learn to do better, too."
She looks forward to still greater interactivity between vendors and those doing the requisitioning; this will be part of an overall e-procurement strategy that she and her staff are currently developing. The Strategic Procurement Branch is probably the most rapidly evolving part of the SSB, says Owen. "The demand for professional procurement support is growing exponentially - our clients are screaming for it. We have lots of talent; lots of people who are keen and dedicated to making these changes. We're constantly creating new ways of doing things."
David Mayerovitch is a freelance writer active in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. He is a communications consultant and speechwriter with experience in the high-tech, contact-centre, pharmaceutical, financial services and real-estate development sectors. He has written for The Globe and Mail and for television. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .