Consumer Damnation #71: Government

In today’s post we’re taking on the first of the consumer damnations — the government. Everyone wants them as a customer because, as the saying goes, once you’re in, you’re in and it’s impossible to get thrown out unless you do something really, really egregious because the process to replace you is so long, arduous, and painstaking that no one wants to do it, especially since management will likely change half-way through the process anyway and put all projects on hold until a new assessment is done. Salesmen love government contracts because they can sell once and then sit back and rake in their commission year-after-year as the evergreen renewals keep coming in.

But, as a Procurement professional, you don’t have it so rosy. Not only can government customers be very demanding, and require you to work extensively with Engineering, Manufacturing, IT, and the Supply Chain to design custom solutions to meet their needs, but they can be quick to pass on the blame to your company even if it’s not your fault. (You didn’t specifically say that we couldn’t put low-grade transparencies with a low melting point through this high-output, high-temperature laser printer that specifically said only 50 lb or better paper stock in the trays.) And if they get caught knowingly outsourcing to China, when they preach “Buy American”, they’re going to blame you and redirect the public outcry your way even though they told you “lowest cost, American or not”. And if it comes to pass that there was child labour or unsafe working conditions two tiers down in your supply chain that you didn’t know about because your supplier used unapproved raw material suppliers, they’ll be the first to throw you under the bus, the plane, and the cargo ship they threaten to use to ship what’s left of your corpse back to China when they are done with you.

Plus, now many government agencies mandate that you provide bill of material data, shipping manifests, country of origin determinations, quality inspections, and other information with every product that you provide the government so they can meet their accountability mandates. It used to be you just shipped the product. Now you have to ship the product and, in some cases, a literal CD’s worth of information — even though they don’t need 90% of it to fulfill their mandates and answer the questions they need to answer. (Your organization needs all of it to maintain import / export / product / regulatory / security compliance across the supply chain, but most parties you sell to only need a small subset of that data.)

And if that’s not enough, if the government runs out of budget and can’t get agreement to run a deficit, there can be an indefinite spending freeze while the situation is resolved. And, unlike the private sector where you have the right to suspend delivery of goods and services until payment resumes, if your organization is providing goods considered necessary for essential services, your organization can be (legally) ordered to continue providing those goods and services during the spending freeze (as your organization will be paid when the freeze is over as a provider of essential goods and services). If the spending freeze drags on for months, this can put your organization in dire financial straits, and additional stress to reduce costs below the baseline established during the sourcing phase will be put on Procurement.

Governments can be your organization’s best and worst customer and Supply Management’s biggest point of leverage and largest risk (as the volumes required can often allow the organization to negotiate great deals but the reputational and legal liability as a result of a single mis-step in the supply chain can be exceedingly costly).

However, in this rather stagnant economy, for many companies, it’s a damned if you do (get Government as a customer) and damned if you don’t (have Government as a customer). Have fun!