It was only a matter of time… How government can avoid the next hotel quarantine bungle

As information emerges about Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine system, there are strong signs the debacle is the result of poor government procurement capabilities.

Readers of this blog will know that I often write about the need to enhance general government procurement capabilities. That is, those government officers who buy products and services as subject matter experts (and who are NOT procurement practitioners) need to be upskilled.

And despite a large number of procurements not fit for purpose, procurements that have cost government far more than they should have, and procurements that have delivered only part or none of the intended benefits, this poor level of procurement capability hasn’t led to anything disastrous.

Until now.

Yes, I’m pointing the finger at the procurement of security services for Melbourne’s quarantine hotels.

government procurement capabilities

Allegedly, and as reported in Melbourne and Sydney newspapers, the decision to use private security guards at Melbourne’s quarantine hotels was partly driven by a well-meaning attempt to provide jobs under “social inclusion” policies. Furthermore, a leaked email published in the papers paints a picture of how rushed the implementation was, describing “heroic efforts” over a weekend in late March as bureaucrats became “expert in the delivery of hotel concierge services”.

Rushing procurements creates errors. It just so happens that government maintains a contract of registered, prequalified and local security guard firms that should have made it easier to make a good decision while under time pressure. The signs are there it wasn’t consulted.

I know some of you reading this might wonder at my timing to stick the boot in, but this is absolutely the right time to discuss why all government employees, not just those in procurement roles, must have some level of procurement training and accreditation.

What happened to procurement accreditation?

You may be surprised to know that the Victorian government no longer maintains a framework for procurement accreditation. In fact, there has been no central framework for procurement training or accreditation since 2012, when government went through ‘procurement reform’.

The Procurement Reform project created a decentralised procurement model where, once accredited to a certain procurement competency, government departments and agencies develop and maintain their own procurement policies and practices under a very broad framework provided by the Victorian Government Purchasing Board.

When procurement reform happened the government lost its centralised training arm and eight levels of procurement qualifications. When I did my time in government, we had to go through training at a defined level before we touched a procurement. This was to safeguard the many government officers that typically find themselves in a buying role without being procurement practitioners.

Procurement is unfortunately an undervalued skill in government. It’s often considered a policing function rather than one that enables outcomes. The fact that no accreditation exists, allowing any government officer to conduct a procurement, is testament to this. However, the current situation has exposed the lack of general government procurement capabilities: clearly not every person can or should run a procurement without the right training!

Security guard panel

On the 1st February 2018, the Victorian government refreshed its panel for security services (Security Services Contract). This panel comprises five local security businesses, employing Victorians.

The security services panel was established following a very long and thorough tendering process where businesses had to demonstrate capability, experience, capacity, processes, systems, quality management, OHS, etc. The panel is listed as “Mandatory”, which means government departments and agencies are required to use it.

Moreover, the range of physical and remote security services offered include a “surge” requirement – described as “security services provided on call for an urgent need for security resources”.

Sounds fit for purpose, right? Yet all reports indicate that the procurement for security guard services went outside this established arrangement.

I was a government procurement officer for a very long time. I do understand government has procurement policies that enable it to bypass mandatory buying arrangements and directly source solutions to meet emergency situations.

However (and this is a BIG however), given a buying arrangement for security services is already established… a buying arrangement that has established pricing, signed contracts, and is enabled to meet an immediate ‘surge’ requirement… Surely this would be the first thought of anyone wanting physical security services at short notice?

Since the security firm awarded a large portion of the contract is not on this panel, I can only assume the executive in the middle of this debacle wasn’t aware such a panel existed?

Social procurement and jobs

So, what did happen?

The Melbourne newspapers quote a government executive who says: “Supporting an effective quarantine program was the department’s motivation, not job creation.”

Actions speak louder than words.

I think it’s generally understood that the fact an Indigenous business, NSW-based Unified Security, was directly approached for this procurement means that it was about jobs – and jobs under the government’s social procurement framework. However, I find it curious that a NSW-based security firm was used in large part, rather than, for example, firms on the Security Services Panel that employ Victorians, many of whom I am sure require Job Keeper and Job Seeker support.

I genuinely support the government’s social procurement framework, and the social procurement policies of other Australian government jurisdictions. Mia delivers many workshops on social procurement encouraging and supporting businesses to comply with these policies. We also work with Indigenous businesses and social enterprises to gain government work.

However, social procurement is one part of government’s overall commitment to a procurement that achieves the desired outcomes and represents strong value for money. This is enshrined in financial management acts and is there to ensure responsible spending of tax payer’s money.

Any procurement, emergency or not, must first meet quality requirements: i.e. can they do the job? They must also meet safety requirements (particularly during a pandemic) and of course represent strong value for money.

Let me repeat: Any business – whether a social enterprise, Aboriginal enterprise, or mainstream business – must first demonstrate they can do the job, to the standard required and meet safety requirements.

No business is exempt from these criteria – and no emergency conditions should waiver them. Being a social enterprise might get you the first ticket to the dance but you then have to demonstrate you can dance!

What should have happened

Evaluation criteria should be applied and considered for every individual procurement. Government prequalification panels, such as the Security Services Contract, exist to streamline this process.

Even if the government buyer of hotel quarantine security services had worked with one or more of the security companies previously, as alleged in the news articles, this does not guarantee the skills or competencies required for a different job, let alone one as complex as hotel security guards during a pandemic!

Frankly, to engage a business without confirming they have the skills, competencies, depth, qualifications and experience to deliver what is arguably one of the most important jobs right now, is to run a negligent procurement process.

A good, well-trained procurement officer would know they can have their cake and eat it too. If this were ever to happen again, they would first direct the government buyer to use the Security Services panel and request a small number of quotes to assess required capabilities and depth of resources. If this were to take an extra day or two, they would install a temporary force to bridge the gap.

Once the appropriately vetted firm was in place providing the services, the procurement officer would then be in the position to look at creating jobs for those impacted by COVID-19. For example, they could recruit a firm like the Brotherhood of St Laurence to deliver a program like Given the Chance, which over time provides a supportive program for disadvantaged candidates to be transitioned into such important and stressful work.

This is an example of successfully using procurement to enable outcomes. Sorry, to enable the right outcomes, while being fair to the business, the personnel and to all Victorians.

It was only a matter of time before the government’s inability to focus on procurement as a strategic enabler would lead to it becoming unstuck. I do hope they can learn from this.

2 comments in this article

  1. Eilleen

    Agree and timing might be best left to when we get through the immediate crisis and people willing to listen.

    1. Deirdre Diamante

      Thank you Eilleen, and yes i’m sure there will be (hope there will be) many lessons learned from the whole process that can be actioned at the right time.

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