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What I learned from tackling Ebola: we need to prioritize agile, electronic procurement systems to beat COVID-19

Sierra Leone was one of the countries worst hit by the Ebola epidemic in 2014. I worked on DFID’s emergency procurement project – a tiny exercise compared to what will be needed to respond to the new coronavirus, but much of what I learned then is still valid today. Countries with inefficient and already overstretched manual procurement systems have gone into this pandemic flying blind. We need an immediate and dramatic global change in the current supply chain mindset to position electronic procurement as a critical tool against COVID-19 to both predict and fulfill demand on a country, regional, hospital, clinic, and patient level.

One of the reasons that people need emergency approaches is because of the clunking inefficiency of most government procurement. In most countries, it remains a paper-based, box-ticking compliance exercise rather than a digital service for government, buyers and the private sector. I’d like to make the case for rethinking that approach here. 

Pity the poor procurement and logistics teams in Sierra Leone who had to rely on basic tools such as Outlook, Excel spreadsheets, Word, Google, and the good old fashioned telephone to try and manage the purchase and delivery of critical supplies. 

These ‘tools’ were of very little help and were often an obstacle in facing up to the huge challenges of rapidly changing shopping lists, specifications and the shortages of even basic medical items such as personal protective equipment, body bags and thermometers, and a long list of other items needed for the local medical staff and British military to run the seven Ebola Treatment Centres (ETCs).

Even during the Ebola emergency we faced long and congested international supply chains, with competing buyers willing to pay any price to get their hands on lifesaving equipment and drugs.

To make matters worse, when trying to keep up with the constant demands from the brave medical staff, we had an almost complete lack of data on prices, suppliers, lead times and specifications to call upon. Finally, there were complex logistical challenges in buying in bulk and then consolidating items from numerous suppliers into ETC packs to be flown out on air charters and then distributed locally. 

I’m sure that many professionals in procurement departments across the globe are now having to rely on these same basic tools to try and manage their emergency procurement for COVID-19. However, governments should be considering the use of electronic procurement platforms, which are readily available off the shelf, often on a software as a service subscription basis, to do their emergency procurement much quicker, more transparently, and much more efficiently. 

Direct contracts, competitive tenders, framework agreements, e-catalogues and call-off contracts can all be managed much better using electronic procurement, as can the  publication of tender and contract award notices online. With many countries imposing lockdowns or travel restrictions, bidders are likely to find it difficult or impossible to deposit hard copies of their bids in a tender box, and in many instances, buyers may have already switched over to only accepting bids by email, which provides ample opportunities for corruption or fraud.

Issuing tenders and receiving bids online through an electronic procurement system instead offers significant advantages in terms of saving time (from factory to patient and medical staff), reducing corruption and increasing security and data capture and utilization. 

Many procurement staff are likely to be self-isolating in their homes and electronic procurement offers a practical way to manage their procurement remotely and work as efficiently as possible as a virtual collaborative procurement team. This tool can create an automated, data-rich audit trail with all data and documents securely stored in one platform rather than disbursed in email systems (often including personal email accounts), unstructured documents and spreadsheets in the cloud, laptops, network drives and paper files in filing cabinets.

The data captured using electronic procurement can be used and reused, and help detect over-pricing, fraud and corruption, as well as providing valuable insights for sourcing and  predicting future demand and supply. Business intelligence tools, driven by the transactional data captured by electronic procurement systems, will improve reporting, analysis and responsiveness to the needs of the healthcare system. These tools will help to provide a real-time picture of the COVID-19 supply chain and identify poor performing suppliers and bottlenecks. Electronic procurement can also help with aggregating demand from various procuring entities and minimizing the chances of the government competing with itself to secure scarce supplies of urgently needed items.

It can be used by governments to improve compliance by buyers and suppliers and to open up their contracting activities to scrutiny by civil society. And it can help governments to maintain public confidence and meet their transparency obligations enshrined in procurement laws and regulations with minimal effort and burden on civil servants. 

National COVID-19 procurement strategies, if they exist, need to be rapidly integrated and transformed into a global digital one to enable the treatment of patients and the protection of medical staff in possibly every country in the world affected by the pandemic. Without high-quality machine-readable and transparent procurement data and tools to understand needs and prices and enable collaboration across agencies, there will be unnecessary and huge casualties in both groups. By adopting the ready-to-use Open Contracting Data Standard, procurement data should be of a higher quality and importantly can be shared, compared, aggregated and used by multiple stakeholders to improve global supply chain collaboration. 

It might not seem that important in a crisis of this scale, but a simple example demonstrates the impact the current lack of standardization in data can cause: the many names for referring to the virus itself, including COVID-19, COVID19, Coronavirus, Covid-2019, and SARS-CoV-2. Buyers and suppliers scouring the internet using a variety of these terms to find each other may fail simply because of an inconsistency in terminology. Apply the same principle to all of the different data types in the full public procurement cycle and the resulting data chaos is bad enough in normal times, let alone during this global emergency, hence the need for the adoption of data-centric electronic public procurement which uses the Open Contracting Data Standard.  

We have the conditions for an international perfect storm where people will lose their lives not necessarily just to COVID-19 but in addition to, or because of chronic failures in the national or local procurement systems, supply chains, logistics networks and the health systems that rely on them. The Just-in-Time supply chain systems that have served the health systems of many countries well enough for many years, including the UK, are tragically turning into Not-in-Time or Far-too-Late for patients and the medical staff, as we are already witnessing with the PPE shortages in the UK and elsewhere.

As the supply chain fails, there is an increasing risk that the infection rate of our heroic doctors and nurses will accelerate as they expose themselves to the additional risks of a high viral load without the necessary PPE, which will result in an even greater strain on health care systems and repercussions to patient care.

There needs to be an immediate redesign of the supply chain from factory to patient before it crashes. We cannot assume that countries with local manufacturing capacity for medical items will be willing to endanger their own healthcare systems and export to other countries, or indeed whether supply will match the rapidly changing demand we can expect to see in the coming days, weeks and months.Electronic procurement tools and other supply chain platforms need to be rapidly built and deployed to help predict and aggregate demand so the global manufacturing capacity can plan and ramp up production accordingly and so the right items can get to the right patient at the right time. Our lives depend on it right now but the pandemic also offers an opportunity to start making a quantum leap to truly digital public procurement across the globe so that it is fast, open and smart every day for everything everywhere.

A safe exit from the Ebola red zone in Sierra Leone – Joseph gives a thumbs up as he waits to be safely guided through the careful exit procedure from the «red zone» at the Makeni Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone (Picture: Jessica Seldon/DFID)

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