27 October 2023

Values-based procurement and university libraries

This post captures some thoughts on values-based procurement in university libraries, based on two 2023 events. Values-based procurement is something that I am really passionate about and it was great to get the chance this year to hear from others working in this space and to share my own thoughts.

 THETA (The Higher Education and Technology Agenda) Conference - May 2023

This conference had a lot of highlights for me, but one that really stood out was Nick Baker from the University of Windsor in Canada. 

Nick's presentation was titled "Practical resources supporting ethical, equitable, accessible and sustainable procurement practices in educational technology". You can view Nick's slides here, which I highly recommend. 

While not focused specifially on libraries, Nick's definition of education technology as "any technology that supports or enhances student learning" would clearly encompass many library products including our catalogues, reading lists, and library guides. 

Nick discussed the decolonisation of edtech, with specific examples including handling of Indigenous languages, removal of Eurocentric terminology, and customisable pronouns. He also discussed the rapid increase in use of surveillance technologies and the way in which online pedagogies can embed control, compliance, and power imbalance and can erode trust, engagement and reputation. 

Nick referred to existing regional Ontario and federal Canadian procurement frameworks which which include guidelines for accessibility, and will be extended to environmental sustainability and rerpesentation of under-represented groups. Social procurement in Canadian Universities has included a collaborative project in British Columbian universities to increase supply-chain diversity and ensure community and social value is delivered. 

Nick noted that while equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) was becoming broadly embedded in Canadian university activities, few institutions had specific procurement guidelines that addressed this directly. This is particularly needed for edtech as these systems "are deeply embedded in the technological fabric of institutions" and "directly and intimately interact with students, staff and academics in multiple, potentially risky ways". 

Nick discussed a collaboration between a number of universities in Ontario to build awareness and capability in edtech procurement. The team working on this project are developing resources and a microcredential framework that will be published via the Ontario Open Library platform when completed. Practical strategies included ensuring diversity on procurement committees, providing vendors with strong signals of the important of EDI, and consdidering weighting for price vs social impact factors.  

Queensland University Libraries Office of Cooperation (QULOC) University Librarians Forum - February 2023

I was asked to provide a lightning talk for this event on the topic "One thing I'd like to see in University Libraries is...". The following is a lightly edited version of my speaking notes for the day. 

You can also watch the video of this presentation on the QULOC YouTube channel

We don’t have time to run polls today but I would guess that many of you attending today practice ethical consumption at least some of the time.  

Maybe you buy recycled toilet paper from a company that builds toilets in developing countries.  

Maybe you’ve given up fast fashion in favour of supporting local makers.  

Maybe you check the sustainability of your seafood or only buy free-range eggs.  

As individuals we make these kinds of choices because we believe it’s the right thing to do and that we can contribute to positive change through mindful purchasing.  

Yet, when I mention procurement, which is basically just institutional purchasing on a bigger scale, most of the reactions I get range from boredom to fear.  

For a lot of people in libraries, procurement has been and is maybe still is experienced as a rigid set of rules, a painful process to endure so that something more interesting will happen.  

It’s safe to say that excitement is NOT the emotion that is generated by this word. 

Like most work practices, procurement does evolve and change. Procurement professionals, just like us, care about getting the best outcomes for the institution and there can be more common ground and flexibility than you might think. 

Did you know that the Queensland Government's 2021 Procurement Policy actually says that procurement should improve the long-term wellbeing of our communities and that agencies should actively try to achieve better economic, environmental and social outcomes through how they spend money? 
 Does this sound like a match made in heaven with library values? I think so!

Understanding what is possible is really important. I do not believe that many library professionals understand our options and how to influence procurement in our organisations. 

The list below shows some procurement considerations and approaches. You will notice in the that the arrow in the middle goes both ways. These aren't binary choices, with one better than the other. These simply represent choices we can make. In any given situation we can consider where on a continuum things might best sit to bring about the best possible outcomes. 

supplier​ ↔ partner  
transactional​ ↔​ strategic​ 
focus on cost​ ↔ focus on value​ 
meet functional needs​ ↔​ meet needs and align with values​ 
accept what’s on offer​ ↔​ improve the offer​ 
focus on process​ ↔​ focus on outcomes​
scan market at time of need​ ↔​ engage with market continuously​
procurement as a hurdle​ ↔​ procurement as a opportunity​

If you only take one thing out of today, I want it to be this phrase: focus on value.  

When the Queensland government says value for money is not the same as the lowest cost, what does that mean? Here are some library examples to get you thinking.  

If you are doing a big library building project, might you ask potential suppliers to offer work-integrated learning opportunities or graduate internships for your architecture or engineering or interior design students?   

If you are buying equipment, might you ask potential suppliers to tell you how many local jobs they support, and how many of these jobs are in manufacturing, not just sales? Might you ask them if they employ staff off-shore and if so, to confirm what they do to prevent workers from being exposed to safety risks that would be unacceptable in Australia?  

If you are buying a library system, might you ask suppliers what they are doing to make their systems less US-centric and more multi-lingual, to enable the use of preferred names, to contribute to global efforts to decolonise cataloguing, and to enhance open access to the scholarly record? 

Whatever you are buying, you can ask your suppliers to describe their track record on things like environmental sustainability, gender equity, their reconcilitation action plan, and preventing modern slavery in their supply chain.

By weighting these things appropriately in your evaluation, you might choose differently. Or you might get the same procurement outcome, but you will still have sent a strong signal to your suppliers about the kinds of things you want to see improved in their delivery of products or services. 

In closing, there are three things I’d encourage you to do, especially if you have purchasing duties.

Firstly, have a read of the procurement strategy documents for your organisation and the relevant local, regional or federal jurisdiction. These can sometimes be really dry but there are nuggets of gold in there if you take the time to look. 

Secondly, actively seek opportunities to build your University’s and Library’s values into your decision-making processes.  

Thirdly, really get to know your procurement folk. Respect and value their time and expertise. Be curious about their world and the trends that are impacting on their work. Don’t let IT project managers or finance business partners mediate these conversations for you. In trying with the best of intentions to simplify and speed things up, they can sometimes reduce our options and take away our ability to positively influence our vendors.  

Thanks for listening, and I hope that at least some of you will be a little bit more excited by procurement in future!