January 6, 2017
by Natalie Duronio
From the December 2016 print edition
There is a growing expectation that local governments use resources efficiently and effectively, while driving positive impacts for the community, society, and environment. Many municipalities have turned to their supply chains to address this call to action. The challenge is that most municipalities are still working at getting the basics in place and growing their programs. Change takes time, and putting into practice a different way of making purchasing decisions is not easy. This means that those driving sustainable purchasing work must prioritize finding ways to communicate and engage, making sustainable purchasing stand out against the emails, information and priorities coming at their staff.
Large municipalities in Canada spend upwards of $20 billion annually, so a major portion of their social, environmental, and economic impact is driven by what they buy. By some estimates, public agencies’ supply chains account for more than 40 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions footprint. How they decide to spend their money can have an impact on citizens and the planet. Many municipalities have now codified sustainability into their purchasing policies or directives, and have taken steps to apply a sustainability lens in evaluating their vendors and their products and services. However, it’s a challenge to embed sustainable purchasing into the organization’s fabric.
The challenge is that the integration of sustainable purchasing requires buy-in and behaviour change across all levels in nearly every department. Staff needs to be on board and to see it as a priority. This takes time, and there’s no evidence that it happens organically—training and engagement activities are a must for organizations to capitalize on the potential that sustainable purchasing provides. You wouldn’t roll out a new e-procurement system without taking the time to normalize new procedures and providing opportunities for training. Similarly, municipal staff can’t deliver on sustainable purchasing activities without robust investment in training and communications.
More than 60 percent of municipalities profiled in the Municipal Collaboration for Sustainable Procurement’s (MCSP) 2015 Annual Trends Report noted they were still at a nascent stage regarding staff training and engagement on sustainable purchasing, and none of them felt as though they were yet doing all they could. Canadian municipalities have identified staff education and change management as a pillar for their programs, but determining how best to carry out these activities is a challenge of its own.
Some barriers facing municipalities are finding the resources and time for training and engagement, and figuring out how to deliver information most effectively. While it’s tempting to look for ways to get information across most quickly, simply sending emails that include slide decks or posting information packages to online portals is not effective at creating lasting change.
Municipalities are working to tackle this by implementing better training and engagement practices. While trial and error is involved, best practices have emerged. Staff training and engagement can be a considerable investment, but following the three principles below will help to ensure that there is a positive return in terms of the development and success of sustainable purchasing.
Tailor training to the differing needs of your internal audiences. There are three types of audiences that need to be informed about sustainable purchasing, each with different learning needs
- Senior managers or directors who oversee and approve budgets need awareness of how green and social procurement choices benefit the business plan. They need to learn how to identify where their planning decisions will most impact sustainability goals;
- Those in purchasing roles who are most intimately involved in the bulk of this work need to; and
- Administrative staff or P-card holders who make spot purchases or perform ordering need a sustainability mindset—understanding that small purchases can add up to have bigger impacts. This group needs instruction to gain and maintain awareness of the environmentally and socially responsible choices they can influence.
The best results come from tailoring training to each audience so they’re well versed in the messages and procedures most relevant to their involvement in sustainable purchasing.
Avoid “one-and-done” style training. Research shows multiple learning interventions lead to the greatest retention and ability to apply knowledge. Organizations should avoid holding a single, comprehensive training session on sustainable purchasing. Even speaking with a supervisor about what you hope to get out of a possible training event adds impacts, again if there’s a post-event discussion.
Particularly when new tools to support the work are being rolled out, it’s important for staff to be introduced to the tools, then to work with them, and over time, to further ask questions and learn more.
The City of Vancouver’s supply chain management team held multiple one-hour staff training sessions when new sustainable purchasing processes and tools were rolled out in 2015. All SCM staff were trained and re-trained in the new tools and processes. The training sessions were tailored to the needs of each group within SCM to ensure the most relevant information for their needs. The design of the training—with an initial session, then follow-up sessions—reinforced new practices and identified implementation challenges.
Apply a blended learning approach. Staff has different learning styles, and organizations get the best results when their people receive content in multiple modalities. This means mixing formal sessions with informal opportunities to ask questions. It also ideally means using a mix of in-person sessions, with digital content and reference materials that can be worked with independently. After introducing sustainable purchasing concepts at an in-person meeting, the City of Edmonton exposed their staff to more material in short, online modules and distributed short follow-up emails. This has been complemented by discussions with the contact for sustainable purchasing, workshops, and inviting staff to attend webinars on sustainable purchasing topics.
Sustainable purchasing is the way forward for municipalities and other organizations that need to deliver social, environmental, and economic impact. Getting this impact requires a culture shift toward sustainable purchasing, and this means engaging staff from across the organization and empowering them to think differently. Information overload is a challenge, but this doesn’t mean that training and engagement should be overlooked; on the contrary, it creates an imperative to be strategic—integrating sustainable purchasing into existing orientation sessions, basic procurement procedures and ongoing training.
The opportunities presented by sustainable purchasing are vast, and what is required to make it work is to get a bit creative, leverage technology and keep communication channels open and collaborative. The result will be an integrated system, in which sustainability is fully embedded into procurement practices and drives real impact, helping to achieve municipal goals and tangibly improve the social, environmental and ethical performance of our procurements and impacts of the supply chain.
Ultimately, effective engagement can lead to a way of purchasing that drives change, turning the organization’s supply chain into a catalyst for social and environmental innovation in the marketplace leading to a circular and inclusive economy.