The Public Procurement Elephant
/ Author: Nathan Koslowsky
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The Public Procurement Elephant

It is incumbent on government to ensure that everyone gets a voice, and that all voices receive a fair hearing

By Nathan Koslowsky, CLAC Representative

Whenever public money is on the table for capital projects, competitors launch campaigns to secure the work, couching self-interest in grand, selfless rhetoric. For example, some will advance an argument for local procurement practices, while others contend that good public policy should promote fair and open tendering.

Both sets of arguments presume to reflect the public interest and the greater good. Each position tends to favour a different set of employer, labour, and political interests. CLAC will have its point of view, the Building Trades Council unions will have their point of view, and the relevant construction associations will have their point of view.

Each group will customize its key messages to reflect the prevailing political vernacular in an attempt to influence government decision making. Each maintains that its position best reflects the public interest and is best for the greater good of the city, province, or country, depending on the nature of the project.

Governments may be tempted, in response to such self-interested groups, to make one of two moves. One, they can throw up their hands and throw out all positions in their entirety on the basis that they are biased. Two, they can choose to adopt one of the perspectives and reject the rest.

Neither of these choices holds up well under scrutiny. By indicting all positions as suspect because they come from a biased perspective, governments abdicate themselves of responsibility, leaving the hard work of discernment to others. On the other hand, choosing one position one position without considering the others is tantamount to burying their head in the sand. 

In the case of the standoff between local procurement and fair and open tendering, both points of view are not unreasonable or untenable. On the contrary. And herein lies the challenge.

With each group positioning itself as a champion of the public interest and greater good, and with each group representing a particular membership base, and with each group in competition, decisions about capital spending on public projects are complicated. After all, which public and whose good should prevail?

It helps to think of public procurement as being similar to the story of a group of visually impaired people who encounter an elephant. Each reaches out a hand and touches one part of the animal—a tusk, ear, trunk, or leg. Each describes the elephant in terms of their own partial experience of it.

Of course, their descriptions are wildly divergent. None of the descriptions on its own describes the elephant well enough.

The story offers fresh insights into the question of whose good, which public? The issues surrounding procurement for public projects are complex. In the midst of complexity, it is difficult to navigate well when any single group promotes its view as the complete picture, and then reinforces that view at the expense of the other groups.

But the loudest voice isn’t necessarily correct or the most fair. The status quo on public procurement in most jurisdictions in Canada favours a monopoly labour model, which, by definition, doesn’t benefit from collaboration, competition, or innovation.

If the various groups have a legitimate interest in the public good, then alternative perspectives ought to be viewed with curiosity rather than animosity, with openness rather than suspicion. A both/and mindset holds more promise than an either/or mindset in truly serving the greater good.

It is incumbent on government to ensure that everyone gets a voice, and that all voices receive a fair hearing. And it is the responsibility of those of us who represent others—whomever they might be—to speak boldly on behalf of the public interest and greater good as they see it from their respective points of view.

The women and men we’ve entrusted to govern us can only do so wisely when they are in possession of the broadest range of perspectives—with a full image of what the elephant in the room looks like.


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