Interview with Manuela van Es and Richard Lennartz

 UBR|HIS is a procurement implementation center for six government departments. Manuela is senior purchasing advisor at UBR|HIS and Richard is director there. They are building a purchasing ecosystem and believe that giving space to both employees and partners ensures that everyone grows and thrives as a result.  

“What we try to convey is that we think like an ecosystem, in which you all grow and thrive. You do that together and never at the expense of others.”

You cannot really speak of a single vision of the central government on purchasing, how do you ensure that there is a sense of community?  

Richard: There is not one single vision of 'the central government' on purchasing. The national government describes what it wants to achieve with procurement, which includes Social Return, SRI and innovation. The way in which we interpret the procurement profession is the vision of the people who work at the HIS and it may differ from how other procurement organizations of the central government work.

What we try to convey is that we think like an ecosystem, in which you all grow and thrive. You do this together and never at the expense of others. We must help and strengthen each other, have an eye for each other without necessarily benefiting ourselves. That also means that you dare to do something for the benefit of another, which is sometimes at the expense of yourself. At a number of levels 'we' is 'we of the government', but the same also applies to our market parties. We must grant them something and they must grant us something.

Manuela: I see the same. What we want is to create social impact. But you also just have a job to keep the market running as it does now. We have the task of stimulating SMEs and giving the self-employed a chance. But also to apply innovative ways in the way we purchase, so that we increasingly leave the solutions to the market and they can use their innovativeness.

Richard: We are more of an extension to achieve policy objectives than a body that has to get everything out of the market at the lowest price. That can sometimes be contradictory, because a client wants the best from the market for the lowest price. We are here to ensure that there is balance.

You indicate that you are looking for a balance in this, to what extent will you sit in the client's chair in order to sharpen those policy objectives?

Manuela: It is not really sitting on the chair, but creating awareness that we as a government have a goal to achieve and that it is not just about spending as little money as possible for the budget of your department. It happens more and more often that we enter into discussions with customers and indicate what we stand for as a government.

Richard: And we then work on two levels. On the one hand, of course, we help the client with the implementation of purchasing, but on the other, we also help design the system in such a way that the incentives end up in the right places.

“If you keep giving, you will automatically get something in return.”

And that ecosystem, that sounds very nice, but if you are the only one, the danger is that you stand screaming in the desert. How do you try to prevent that?

Richard: I think it's a matter of continuing to radiate, propagate and be very consistent. The main thing is that you don't make the mistake of doing some sort of calculation; that you've given three times and haven't gotten anything in return, so I'll stop. An example is the chair that we managed to achieve, which would never have been possible on my own. With two pages under my arm I went through the organizations that also think the same, all those organizations have said they contribute while they get nothing visible in return. So for me it's a matter of continuing to lead by example. If you keep giving, you will automatically get something in return.

Manuela: Yes, we are very much in favor of openness and transparency. As long as we can share it, we will. And vice versa, we try that too. The way in which our MT is involved gives you a lot of freedom in your work. This means that you can increasingly think 'out of the box' and dare to take risks. If you've thought it through carefully. I think that is a very good starting point.

Does that make your work more fun, easier and better?

Manuela: Hell yes. An example of this is the tender in 10 days that we did with you (Supply Value). I think that's a nicer way of working than coloring within the lines because that's just the way it is supposed to be. It took me a while before I was able to give that a place, but it really makes your profession more fun and brings great solutions with it.

Richard: I like how Manuela says that, “it took me a while to feel that”. It is good to realize that you cannot suddenly work in this way, but that it takes time and therefore perseverance.

How do you create such a culture of being risky or non-risk averse?

Richard: When I joined the HIS in mid-2016, there was a culture that you have to cover everything. I wanted to do this differently. I believe that you achieve much more when you give space to the market than when you board everything up. A lawsuit was about the worst thing that could happen, that encourages people to stay risk averse. So I've started to approach it differently: If you go to court because you have pushed your limits, you get a bottle of wine. you get that and square public and for the verdict, because it's very easy to give a bottle of wine when you've already won. At the department they thought there was a madman at the HIS who stimulated an injunction. That is not the case, I only encourage to look for boundaries. It took 8 months before the first bottle of wine was distributed. If you really look at how often we have lawsuits, there are almost none. If they were there, we couldn't have prevented them.

Manuela: 2016 was a turning point in that regard. Richard has a very different management style than others had before him. In the civil service you are brought up in a certain way, somewhat ingrained. In any case, Richard got me into a different mode, I started looking more ahead, innovating and thinking differently about some things.

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How do you see the future of the purchasing organization for you?

Manuela: I think we are going to digitize more and more. We are working on data storage and how we can better provide data to control and adjust. IT can help us generate better purchasing information and better serve our customers. It can take the simpler work off your hands, so that we can focus on customization. You saw this, for example, in the 10-day tender. Back then we were much more focused on one job and then you see how quickly such a strategy is established. If you spread the tender over several months, much more time and information will eventually be lost. By doing the same in less time, there is room to deploy people differently and to deliver more quality for the customer. This makes our customers happier, but it also makes us happier ourselves. How we are going to apply these kinds of innovative ways of working within the HIS is quite a challenge. I do see a kind of innovation team emerging at the HIS.

Richard: Part of our organization is already prepared for more digitization. For example, for a number of years no permanent people have been hired for contract management. Incidentally, a lot of data is not ours at all. For example, payments concern the financial systems and many contracts are still concluded with the ministries themselves. What we can help with is to jointly unlock this data as an ecosystem (with our departments, financial services center and suppliers) and turn it into something beautiful. This is quite complex, but the first steps have been taken. We are also already looking at open source data. The Tax and Customs Administration, for example, has already come a long way in this regard. With the push of a button, they can see what the movements are in the market and what the payment behavior is, for example. I think we will get there in the coming years. We will mainly apply many modern techniques, as we already do; shorter processes, more agile and indeed systems help us with that.

To conclude: be consistent, continue to radiate the value you believe in and ultimately seek cooperation. Is that a good summary?

Richard: Absolute. It seems so cool, doesn't it, as if we make very cool rocket science plans every 3 years. We know that those long-term plans on their own aren't going to make a difference. The difference is in those hundreds of decisions that everyone makes every day. By making those decisions you ensure that you move forward, that is how you make the difference.

“A strong opinion doesn't necessarily make you a stronger person, it just makes you pause.”

What would you like to pass on to purchasing colleagues in the country?

Manuela: To grow you have to let go. Opinions are there to be adjusted by beliefs. Be open to that, only then will you grow. A strong opinion doesn't necessarily make you a stronger person, it just makes you pause.

Richard: Dare to think and act in the common interest instead of your own interest. As Manuela indicated that this takes time, that also applies very much to me. It used to be really clear that I had an opinion and my attitude was: you don't convince me of anything else. Apparently you have to have some years on the counter to be happy to be convinced. If people think I'm a twister, you can think so, but I've changed my opinion. In the past, I would have really liked that. So don't be afraid to act like a twister.

“So don't be afraid to act like a twister.”