Procurement as an institutional priority

Laura Watson of Durham University

Universities were encouraged by the Diamond report to see procurement as an institutional priority.  But how can this be achieved in principle and what have universities done on the ground? Laura Watson, deputy director of procurement at Durham University, talks with John Lakin of Procurement UK about what has been achieved at her university.

JL:  When I carried out a piece of research on procurement recently for the Efficiency Exchange, it struck me that there are sometimes quite negative views of procurement in universities.  How do you characterise procurement at Durham?

LW: At Durham, procurement is an enabler but we are also there to make sure that we do things right.  This includes complying with legislation, ensuring we address the important environmental and social issues, and making sure we pay the right price, by looking at the most economically advantageous tender and whole life costs.  However, at the end of the day, we are there to provide a service.  If our customers don’t need to buy goods or services, there is no need for us.

JL What has worked well for you in repositioning procurement in the way you describe?

LW: In order to make sure we do things right, we have spent a lot of time looking at the way we do things to ensure we add value at the right parts of the process.  Our strategic sourcing strategy makes us do a detailed planning phase, looking at our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; establishing who our key stakeholders are and what power or interest they may have in what we are doing; looking at competitors and carrying out spend analysis.  By doing this, we have a much better understanding of the category, or commodity we are buying, so we can ensure that we tailor the procurement process to suit.

Collaboration is key to our success, whether that be through working with the consortia, by developing detailed plans so that we understand our stakeholder’s requirements, or through specific projects, we exist to source goods and services for our customers.

JL:  What has proved difficult?

LW: Different people generally have their own thoughts on what they need and how they need it.  Working with them to get them to understand what we need and why we need it can be time consuming, but will save time in the long run as challenges are not received, and expectations are met.

JL:  And what remains to be done?

LW: We are currently concluding the roll out of eProcurement, which will be a great achievement when that is complete.  We are also implementing a category management structure, which will take time as it is important to ensure that stakeholders are engaged in the process.

JL:  I understand that you were the first English university to achieve a superior rating in a capability assessment exercise.  How useful did you find this exercise?

LW:  This was hugely beneficial.  We are not a “stand still” department, we are continually looking at what we could do differently, and how we can improve what we offer our customers.  To go through such a rigorous process with APUC, that highlighted some areas that we could address, has helped to focus our plan for the next five years.

JL:  And what has been your approach to training and upskilling staff?

LW: Staff are our ultimate resource, and training is essential to their continuing professional development.  All our staff have received some level of professional training appropriate to their job (e.g. CIPS) and each year all staff get the opportunity to do some training, whether that be formal training (e.g. a HEPA course) or training by their peers.

JL:  Finally, what lessons do you think there are for other universities from your experience?

LW:  Anything is achievable.  I regularly get told that anything is possible with an army of staff, and my response is that there are less buyers in my University than there will be in all others, as we have no devolved buying.  With this comes control, and this is a very powerful message to share with Vice Chancellors.


Laura Watson is Deputy Director of Procurement at Durham University and John Lakin is an independent consultant and board member of Procurement UK, the body established by Universities UK to take forward the procurement recommendations in the Diamond Review.