“The initial steps in a procurement process are the most important. You have to be incredibly clear, so that people who are going to supply the services really understand what it is. Ambiguity costs money.”
Joe Moore, City Manager of Fond du Lac
Joe serves as the City Manager of Fond du Lac WI. He was previously a Colonel in the US Army, where he spent 27 years, serving on four continents.
You’ve got an interesting background, coming from the military and moving into City Management. Could you tell us a little bit more about your background?
Joe: Sure, I feel really blessed to have had both experiences: military life and city management. And the connection between the two is strong because in the military I had the opportunity to be a commander of various bases overseas. An overseas military base is every bit an American city. We were simply connecting into the host nation utilities, and then providing everything else. As a matter of fact, military bases overseas often seem like an American city. The difference is very interesting: to be inside the gate of the base or outside of the gate, you see how that cultural divide is so evident.
So, as I was considering both my daughters progression through school, I decided, along with my wife, that we wanted to settle down before my older daughter began high school. And it seemed like a very natural fit for me to transition from what I was doing in the military as a base commander to that of a City Manager. So, that’s really how the seeds were planted for me to make that transition.
Yeah, so could you talk about some of the similarities and differences between those two environments for you?
Joe: Well, I have to say the similarities, and the long list of the similarities really, surprised me. I was certain that, and I still am, that influencing people and creating an environment where you have the ability to build a team is pretty much the same in any organization. And that certainly applies between the military and city staff. So, I know that would be similar. People are people. And people want to be and need to be led. People need and want to be in a vibrant environment where their ideas are heard, where they get the opportunity to pursue their interests and make improvements. So that was not surprising.
But, what was surprising is the amount of other similarities. Even the lexicon of what we talk about among the city staff, in terms of public works or financial management, or legal considerations, etc., etc. Even the lexicon is the same between the two organizations. So, I didn’t experience the difficulty in changing the lingo to understand and to be understood because it was the same. And obviously a street’s a street. But, you know, even the way we approach the maintenance of our property, or the repairs of our property, the rating of the quality of our property or our services, very similar. So that was a much easier transition that I expected.
I will say that, at least in the state of Wisconsin, where I am, a city is essentially on its own. In other words, I have a governing body, our City Council, who is essentially the end all be all for decision making. Our City Council sets policy within which the staff and I operate, which is, believe it or not, incredibly streamlined when compared to, say, the bureaucracy of the Federal Government. Now, I don’t use the word bureaucracy pejoratively. There are just a number of layers in any department in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. In city management, that does not exist. And that is, I think, a really interesting facet of being a City Manager.
The art and science of a procurement and supply chain logistics historically has roots in the military. I’m sure you saw that first hand as a manager of military bases abroad. I’m curious to learn more about your exposure to that side of the equation of managing a base and managing a city.
Joe: Well, in terms of procurement, I think of the idea of having a very efficient system combined with a strong set of internal controls. Those concepts are generally applicable to any organization, large or small. And so, I think that’s a really important concept in procurement. One advantage we have at the city level is our procurement options are very broad and also very streamlined because so much of what we need is available off the shelf. And for a city our size, there are many shelves. So we’re able to make purchases same day, and have supplies that we may need. Whether it’s anything from supplies for our parks system, our swimming pools, our public works, or our office supplies, all of those things are locally available. We don’t necessarily have a very long lead time for ordering most things. That’s really nice, because it gives us an ability to be pretty flexible and not have to have large inventories of things. And not have assets built to store large inventories of things.
I could see acquiring office supplies is very different than acquiring, for example, a helicopter.
Joe: Right, that’s what I meant. Most of what we’re using on a daily basis is generally available inside our municipality. And if it’s not, it’s easily found, especially these days with so many opportunities for online purchases. Even if we’re looking for specialty items and we want to make sure we’re getting the best price, that’s become so much easier for our procurement officers. At least in the initial stages, to make their estimates and to understand who’s out there in terms of supply chain.
I think we’re much better informed consumers whether we’re doing so as individuals in our private lives, or as municipalities because there’s so much more information readily available to us.
What are some of the challenges you’ve come across as a City Manager when it comes to procurement? How do those differ from the challenges that came across when you were managing bases in the military?
Joe: Well, one common challenge is not so much process related but resource related because we have to be very vigilant about providing the best value for our taxpayers. And within that we have financial constraints, and so we have to plan the application of whatever projects we may have in the pipeline based on both the highest priority for taxpayers and also within the constraints of any annual budget that we might be dealing with, or our capital improvement plans. So, you know, those three things together I think, really aren’t challenges. I wouldn’t define them as challenges at all. I would define them as our realities, and just sort of owning up to those realities and respecting them. And then really understand them so that if we need to do something quickly, then we have to understand that we may have to reprioritize. Again, not challenges, just realities.
Yeah. Our budgets are not infinite. And even if they were, the desire of our constituents is such that they are just like we are, concerned about value and being financially conservative. As I said, even if our budgets were unlimited, we still are paying attention to that all the time.
What do you view as the highest priority goals when it comes to procurement and supply chain for the city?
Joe: Best value. And you know, value is sort of a buzzword. But when you look into the details of what that means, I think it means responsiveness. It means being very efficient with the money that we have. And making sure that when we’re making purchases that we’re doing so in a way that’s highly informed. That we know we’re getting the best price for the best quality and making very informed judgment.
How do you think about helping your team achieve best value?
Joe: Well, I’ll start with some of our biggest expenditures and how we approach that, and how we attempt to have that best value approach. It really all starts with the end state you want to achieve. The way you communicate that is through, in many cases, your bid documents. Again, I’m talking about the larger projects whether it’s constructing a facility or whatnot. You’re going to get what you’ve asked to get in your contract. So, making sure that we’re, number one, spending the time and energy to really guarantee that we’re going to get what we want comes down to the initial steps in that planning process. So that we really understand what it is that we want.
Then we put the time in to communicate that in writing so that we don’t find ourselves on the back end of a project injecting change that is almost always more expensive at the back end than it would have been had we included it in the base documents to begin with. The initial steps in a procurement process are the most important. You have to be incredibly clear, so that people who are going to supply the services really understand what it is. Ambiguity costs money. And you don’t solve that ambiguity until you’ve already gotten yourself into the project.
So it sounds like from your perspective, up front creation of a great solicitation is really critical to getting the right vendor on the job.
Joe: It certainly is. I mean, if you don’t do that well, you really are entering the process with your fingers crossed, or blind faith, and neither of them generally work out well.
RFP writing can be a really challenging endeavor. Do you have any advice on how to write a great RFP?
Joe: Yeah, the advice I would give is that an RFP is generally written by an individual. I mean, ultimately, it has an author. I think it’s really vital that the author approaches that effort with the idea that he or she needs to bring a team together to really get the insight of all the different players in that process, and what I mean by that is say we’re going to issue an RFP for some project in a park. Well, the natural tendency would be to think that the park superintendent knows the most and you might make this mistake, thinking that the park superintendent knows everything. And if you were to make that mistake, then you could be missing some important points about access for fire apparatus, or the city engineer’s input in terms of if we need roads, sidewalks, etc., that give access to that new facility.
My point in that is to really step into the process thinking that you need to build a team at the very beginning, so that you can get all of those inputs. So that it’s not an act of discovery once the project has begun and you come to realize that you wish you would have talked to those people in the beginning.
Are there any one or two pieces of advice that you’d like to leave the conversation on for other City Managers?
Joe: Well, as far as advice, I’m hesitant to give it because we all have our own challenges and I think when we look in the mirror, we all realize we also have our own weaknesses. So I don’t want to presume to tell anybody else how to do anything. But, I would say this: the more open your organization is to people who have ideas about how to do something, especially when it’s not necessarily the way it’s always been done. If you have an environment inside the organization where people feel free to give voice to those ideas, I think that’s very valuable, because there’s often many ways to do something. There’s also often a tendency to do it the way it’s always been done. Which may not be the best way.
So if there’s that openness, almost an invitation to always feel free to offer ideas. Even if you’re on the margins of a project, you’re not really part of the core planning group. But if you’ve got ideas that you think might help the project team, then I think the organization that welcomes that input is better for it.