GovLoop is excited to bring you a new series we're calling "Ask the GovExpert." We'd like to bring new voices to the community, introducing you to people who are at the top of their fields.
We kick off our inaugural interview with Shannon Wampler, a Senior Supply Diversity Coordinator at the University of Virginia. In this role, Shannon has helped in sourcing small, woman, and minority-owned (SWaM) firms for University purchases. Since FY 2005, the University's diverse supplier spend has grown by 161%; woman-owned business by 200%; and minority-owned business by 333%, exceeding state targets. I don't mean to be cavalier (pun intended), but those numbers are tough to beat. More from Shannon below, but you can also follow her at @saw2w.
1 - How do you define procurement?
The word “procurement” can have slightly different meanings from organization to organization, but at the University of Virginia it encompasses the complete life cycle of a good or service: how we purchase it, how we pay for it, and (for goods) how we surplus it. That also includes what I do in supplier diversity, where we’re tasked with making sure that what we buy comes from Small, Woman-, or Minority-owned businesses wherever possible, and at the best value to the University.
It’s especially important to note that there’s an art to procurement – it’s not just a bunch of monkeys sitting around typing out Purchase Orders. Our buyers engage in a highly evolved process of sourcing vendors, seeking out other agencies’ contracts to access, negotiating with vendors, writing solicitations and contracts that protect both the vendor and the University, and finding ways to streamline our business process.
2 - How is it different/similar at a college/university compared to Federal, state or local level government?
Compared to the rest of the Commonwealth of Virginia, colleges and universities are operating differently than many other state agencies. For example, we’re engaged in highly specialized scientific research, the equipment for which is manufactured by a very small number of companies, and is needed very quickly before cutting-edge technology changes. There’s a great need to dispense with bureaucratic formalities in order to fulfill our educational mission while also maintaining a transparent, value-based process. Under the 2005 Restructuring Act, colleges and universities in the Commonwealth, and especially UVa, have a level of autonomy from the state with regard to financial and procurement policies.
I haven’t had the opportunity to network with many federal procurement folks, but I’d imagine that they’re working with a broader array of commodities, and they have a much higher volume to leverage. In the supplier diversity sphere, they have the 8(a) program, more certifications, and the ability to use set-asides in purchasing. I’d love to hear from contractors who have been successful in doing business with both federal and state entities to learn about the differences from their points of view.
3 - What are your biggest challenges?
In supplier diversity, it’s finding qualified, certified firms who are ready and willing to work with the University. Frankly, we are operating in a sophisticated arena in which some smaller businesses that are just starting out cannot compete. Our job as supplier diversity professionals is to develop those firms, point them to either smaller opportunities at the University or with our smaller peers, and to help them grow. In some cases, that strategy doesn’t align with the firm’s, and in some cases it leads to success. Supplier diversity is a dance – there are a lot of steps forward, but a lot of steps backward as well. That’s why we love it!
4 - How is new technology changing procurement for you?
We’re making a big push towards seamless electronic procurement, in which our orders are electronically submitted directly into vendors’ fulfillment systems, our invoices are received and matched electronically, and our payments are made electronically. This has the potential to result in major cost savings for us (it’s expensive to write and mail a check!), but it can also mean savings for our vendors, which would result in lower prices for us.
5 - What’s the best way to approach an agency as a small business?
Find a way to build a relationship with the individuals who are actually asking for what you sell. Many times, businesses think their key contacts will always be the buyers, but especially in decentralized purchasing environments, you really need to know the people who will be using your good or service. In the universities, those people range from plumbers to world-renowned political scientists – might your marketing tactics need to reflect your consideration of what their needs are?
Find out who the supplier diversity/small business contact is in the agency. They should be able to give you a valuable lay of the land, give you more information than you’ll ever know what to do with about the organization, and help you figure out a strategy. I know this isn’t always the case in practice at every agency though, in which case you’ll need to figure out another way to learn how the agency does business. I can’t stress how important it is to attend networking events; more importantly, it’s important to attend networking events prepared. Bring questions that show you’re interested (not “so how can I get a contract?”).
6 – What’s one thing non-procurement govies should know about procurement?
A lot of procurement rules may seem like they’re written for the sole purpose of slowing you down or denying what you need, but it’s important to keep in mind that with taxpayer money, we have to follow a transparent value-driven process. I can’t speak for other agencies, but at the University of Virginia our buyers embrace change, seek out efficiency, and aim to write contracts that ultimately protect the interests of the University. Sometimes this can take a little longer on the front end of the purchasing timeline, but they save a lot of headaches from happening in the future.