Pub Debate – Can Procurement With Purpose Save the World? Audience Observations

Last week we featured the arguments for and against our recent Pub Debate motion: “Procurement with Purpose can save the world.” The basic concept is that Procurement, with the right ‘purpose’ – that is, accountability, responsibility, ethics and social value – can change, maybe in some instances even reverse, or at least have a major impact on, the world’s social and environmental ills. We are talking, modern slavery, climate change, environmental resources and so on.

Four eminent speakers, Martine Booth (SAP Ariba) and Andy Davies (London Mayor’s Office) spoke for the motion, while Mark Webb (Future Purchasing) and Peter Smith (Spend Matters) spoke against. Each had just eight minutes to sell a convincing argument and both sides presented strong and laudable points. As it turned out, the final vote proved that the house was almost evenly split, coming down very marginally on the FOR side.

So here is a recap of the main points put forward by the audience during the Q&A at the end of the debate, and before the vote, to give us a flavour of why Procurement professionals are so divergent on this issue.

In brief summary, the proposers of the motion argued that procurement makes the purchasing decisions, therefore has the power to effect change through its actions, while the opposers say that procurement does not have the autonomy and so cannot, and that the world probably does not need saving by procurement in any case.

There was some debate between the audience over the very basic premise for the argument, with some seeing responsibility for ethical procurement laid firmly at the feet of the procurement professional personally, and others, at the door of the function itself. So, in essence, the person versus the process. There was also division between those who fell on the more traditional procurement side which says research and hard facts drive outcomes, and those who believe innovation and emerging technologies will drive how procurement functions. Some might say, given these debares, that the vote was about semantics as much as anything!

The argument that procurement makes the decisions to buy which materials and resources and from where, and therefore has the power to effect change, was contested by the Against side, with one member suggesting that allocation of the (larger) spending power actually lies with Finance (not Procurement). Another felt that, even with the spending allocation, Procurement does not have the autonomy to make those change-effecting decisions.

The FOR team counter-argued that a change in end-user attitudes, and what they expect from procurement, could have the greater ability to bring about change. They referred the audience to the 9,400 people who die each year in London alone from air-quality-related issues. If people could change their on-demand habits, maybe there would be less white vans running around the streets just to deliver a few items of stationery, for example. Better Logistics could take care of that. And if more people wasted less water in their personal use, a greater crisis could be averted – it only takes a few people to start a trend – they reminded us.

Another audience member offered that if we introduced social development goals (like those outlined by the UN) into our contracts with suppliers and in our own policies, we might have the unique opportunity to drive change – after all it is only Procurement in an organisation that has the power, with its supplier relationships and supply chain visibility, to do that. The proposers were quick to agree, but the opposition quashed that with “but that isn’t saving the world! – that is simply influencing it.”

We then had another show-stopper when another person introduced the theme of time. “Of course procurement can save the world, given enough time,”- anything is possible if the timeframe for achieving it is infinite. It was a valid point which had not been framed by the motion.

On the subject of time, the point was raised that no procurement department has the bandwidth to add so much value that it can save the world. But the proposers felt that given the technology and tools we have today, they can. This led to the question – do we train our professionals to step up to the mark? The floor’s response was mixed. It’s clearly a sensitive issue, and the opposition was quick to respond: going back to the CPO research mentioned in their speech, they showed that the key driver for procurement is still price, that’s what people get promoted for, not value, they pointed out! So there is still not the compunction or reward for putting social value first.

The proposers picked up on this as an ill in society in general. If everyone were less selfish (e.g. water supply), and didn’t expect next-day delivery (e.g. air pollution), or followed fashions without understanding their source (e.g. fur), then the abused world could start to mend. But the opposition reminded us that we are talking about Procurement making these changes, and Procurement cannot alter these requirements, just deliver on them. And when it comes to the big public sector purchases, like defence, it is the politicians who dictate policy, not procurement – which has to buy what it is told to buy.

So the opposition leant heavily on their mantra that ‘we are overstating it when we say procurement alone can save the world.’ While the proposers stuck to their stance that your morals are your guiding compass, it what’s divides us from AI, and that’s what will make the difference.

And on that point, the motion was carried – by a single vote! Procurement and its people have some way to go still on deciding where their allegiances lie – towards saving money, or saving the world. Or maybe we should endeavour to do both. At the end of the day, another enjoyable and worthwhile put debate – as Caractacus Potts would say - 'what makes the question worth the asking ...?'

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