Agency relations and customer service is NASPO’s top priority for 2019. What an exciting topic to tackle as it is the first time it appears on NASPO’s Top 10 in the last two years! Current NASPO President Lisa Eason is a big supporter of highlighting agency relations initiatives across the country.
Improving relationships with state agencies not only increases the efficiency of procurements in the state but also makes the process and experience for both agency staff and procurement staff less tedious. However, many states have yet to implement extensive programs and initiatives due to the different puzzle pieces that need to come together to make the change effective. Improving agency relations and customer service is a complex task that requires both employees and management to change mindsets and behaviors. At times, it requires organizations to restructure their operations to function in a customer-centric mindset rather than working in traditional silos.
To understand the topic of agency relations and customer service better, we need to explore the difficulties state procurement offices are facing with their state agencies and what initiatives have been undertaken to build and sustain effective and efficient relationships with agencies. The central procurement offices we spoke with generally wanted to be included in the procurement process at the beginning of the project to support their agencies. They also wanted to provide access to procurement training to help facilitate an understanding of procurement processes and develop productive relationships with agencies. By providing state agencies with an understanding of the procurement process, state procurement offices hoped their agencies would be more likely to abide by the rules and regulations. For example, if agencies know how important it is to complete a full needs analysis before an IT procurement moves forward, that procurement will ultimately be more successful for the agency in the long run.
To reach these goals states are creating innovative solutions. We will share brief summaries of some of these projects.
The state of Alaska has implemented a program called the Alaska Procurement Officers Group (APOG). The group meets once a month with the representative procurement leads from every department agency within the state. The Division of General Services (DGS) representatives are at the meetings as guests to allow the state agency representatives to speak about new initiatives, administrative state procurements, and recommended changes to procurement policies and procedures. The APOG group has been able to improve the implementation of the new eProcurement system by creating guides that reduced an existing standardized process that used to take 2-3 weeks, to only a couple of hours. By holding these APOG meetings, DGS has grown to understand the needs of the agencies better and develop trainings that cater to the agencies’ needs.
The state of Idaho has implemented an initiative called the Liaison Program. The Division of Purchasing (DOP) assigns a staff member to an agency to act as the initial point of contact for questions, collaboration, and purchasing issues. This program allows agencies to reach out and keep the lines of communication standardized and open. The liaisons have monthly meetings with their designated agency staff member to discuss upcoming projects and changes in policy and procedures. During these meetings, they perform agency reviews, administer spend, solicitations, contract files, and templates, ensure compliance with laws and address any other issues that come through the DOP office as well as support the agency as needed. The DOP administers a statewide training for agency staff that focuses on the RFQ and RFP processes. The Liaison Program and statewide training have opened the door for agencies to ask questions specific to their buying authority.
The state of Maine has implemented a program called “Agency Point of Contact” (APOC). Similar to Idaho’s Liaison Program, Maine’s central procurement office assigns one person to a couple of different agencies. For example, one person in central procurement is assigned to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and Fish and Wildlife. This program allows the central office to communicate more effectively about changes to the procurement process before a procurement is underway. Instead of saying “no” to an agency, the central procurement office has also focused on becoming a place of “yes!” This communication strategy allows the central procurement office’s point of contact to the agency to work with them to find solutions that both follow Maine’s procurement law and get the agency what they need.
The state of Georgia has implemented multiple strategies to build agency relations, including holding a statewide procurement conference. The conference is the state’s education and networking event for procurement professionals and supplier partners. One session that gained a lot of traction was called “Help Us, Help You” and was designed just for the strategic sourcing unit. However, over time, the session was introduced to other units. In the session, all of the customer agencies were in the room and learned about the central office’s procurement processes. The central office then asked very specific questions concerning the ways they could improve their functions. For example, the central procurement office took the opportunity to pose questions like, “What contracts do you need?”. The procurement office then took that information, compiled all the agencies’ answers, and then made a priority list of the ones that they could tackle that would provide agencies with the things they needed immediately.
The state of Michigan has created a new purchasing process outside of the ERP system called the “Alternate Payment Process.” Before this process, the sick fish in the Fish and Wildlife Agency were dying because the medical fish food was not getting to the fish in time. However, by designing an alternate payment process outside their ERP system they were able to streamline the procurement of medical fish food and the medicated fish food was able to get to the sick fish. The central procurement office went above and beyond to meet with biologists in the fish sanctuary and ask agencies “What is it like in your everyday job and how can we make it easier for you to get what you need?” before implementing this process. If an agency needed a request for an alternate process, the central procurement office explained the rules of what they needed to see in terms of reports. For example, with this process the Fish & Wildlife Agency can pick up the phone with the vendor and order the necessary medicated fish food. This new process saves 10-20 hours a week for a dozen people as well as protects the health of the fish. With this new system, the central procurement office is saying, “We can meet you halfway!”
These are just a few of the innovative strategies states are using to build relationships with their agencies. These strategies have brought about great outcomes such as improved agency relationships, an increase in agency comfort levels to ask questions ahead of time, inclusion of the central office into procurement processes sooner, and an increase in agency procurement training and education.
If you would like to share with us some of your state initiatives, we would love to hear them! Contact [email protected] to share your ideas. Be on the lookout for future projects from NASPO on customer service and agency relations!