Interview: Patricia Moser, Director UNOPS Procurement

Tue, 23/05/17

To mark the start of a series of profiles on UN sustainable procurement champions, Greening the Blue met with Patricia Moser, Director of the Procurement Group at UNOPS, to find out more about the UN's approach to sustainable procurements. Here's what she told us...



Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at UNOPS?

I’ve been at UNOPS for almost two and a half years. Before that, I worked in senior executive roles in different industries in the private sector, in procurement and supply chain. I also ran my own consultancy for several years, with clients from both the private and public sectors.


What services does UNOPS Procurement provide?

UNOPS mandate is to be a central procurement resource for the United Nations. In line with this thinking, the Procurement Group’s vision is to supply value, deliver results and change lives, enabling and empowering action on the sustainable development goals for our partners and clients. We do that by focussing on several key areas, including advisory services, providing procurement implementation services through our e-commerce platform UN Web Buy Plus, analytics and more. All of this is underpinned by a strong commitment to sustainable procurement and changing lives through procurement!


Who are your main audiences? Do you work more with UN agencies or with the wider public sector?

We certainly do work within the UN family, but for our advisory services we work directly with governments around the world, providing them with analysis and advice on how they can do public procurement better. UN Web Buy Plus works with NGOs, other humanitarian organizations and the UN family, as well as our field offices supporting local governments. All in all, it’s pretty varied.


How does UNOPS actually define sustainable procurement?

For us, sustainable procurement is a three-legged stool, consisting of environmental, social and economic elements. Too often the term ‘sustainable’ is just used to describe the environmental aspects, but from our perspective you need to address all three if you’re to ensure that you have what you can truly deem to be ‘sustainable procurement.’ 


In terms of end goals, do you have any clear targets for UNOPS sustainable procurement, or is it more about ensuring that sustainability is factored into the procurement process?

I don’t like calling it a process or a destination; I prefer to think about it as a journey where you interweave sustainable procurement into the DNA of the organization. If you call something a programme or a process, it just becomes something you need to complete rather than something you inherently do on an ongoing basis. UNOPS is on a sustainable procurement journey and we’ll continually look at impacts throughout that journey. 


For someone that is new to sustainable procurement and the benefits that it offers, what would be the ‘quick wins’ that you would use to sell sustainable procurement as a concept? 

One of the myths surrounding sustainable procurement is that it’s going to cost you more, which is inherently not the case and certainly not what I’ve seen throughout my 25 years of encouraging companies to be more sustainable.

One of key things that people need to do is look at whether there is a consistent definition of sustainability within their organization. Does your staff see it as an add-on, or as something that can result in a better outcome not only for the organization but also for the communities in which they serve?

By incorporating sustainability criteria in tenders, even on a voluntary basis, it highlights to your suppliers that sustainability is something that is important to you, and is something they could use to potentially differentiate themselves from their competitors. 

I also think that we need to stand back and re-think when we release calls for tenders. Are we just copying and pasting from three years ago without re-thinking exactly what is being put into the document? Have we investigated what the local community has to offer? Have we considered new innovative, potentially more sustainable solutions that could address the same situation we faced a few years ago? When we look at the social and economic aspects of it, I think that these matters can be addressed by reaching out through chambers of commerce or pre-bid meetings, to start engaging small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and what we call ‘traditionally disadvantaged’ businesses, for example businesses owned by women or young people. 


Do you find that procurement leads to innovative product solutions that you might not have been aware that you were looking for? Does that approach of going to the market early lead to better solution?

It certainly can and sometimes you don’t necessarily know what the best solution to the situation might be. When you can issue an Expression of Interest, then companies who may have alternative ways of approaching the problem can be revealed to you. We are interested in trying to identify innovative approaches to previous situations, and lots of these come through SMEs, not necessarily the big guys and large organizations.

It is sometimes exceedingly difficult for these SMEs to get access to us, and to demonstrate how their product or offering could create a better or different outcome for our projects. Our Possibilities Portal attempts to address this. It is specifically focused on finding SMEs by asking them to provide us with an outcome-orientated 500-word pitch that helps us to understand how their proposed solutions can actually change our approach to projects that we are currently working on. This encourages us to think beyond the ‘here and now’ and focus on the ‘what could be’ (which is our tag line for it). You can’t just sit back and wait for innovation. You actually have to go out and seek it in the marketplace. 


From the perspective of a procurement officer who is trying to embed more sustainable practices into their operations, what do you think are the most common barriers to success?

Well I would go back to the myth of sustainable procurement and the fact that it is perceived to cost more. If you look at things holistically, it doesn’t necessarily cost more. In fact, in some cases it can cost less. The description, or the lack there of, that some organizations and offices have in terms of what sustainable procurement is also poses as a barrier in implementation. The term ‘sustainable’ is commonly used in consideration of the environmental impacts, but if used in this way you lose a great portion of the meaning of sustainable procurement by excluding the social and economic aspects.

I also think that, in some cases, when you’re out in the field and you’re already overworked and trying to do a lot of different things at one time, it’s easy to think that sustainable procurement is going to give you even more work to do. For many organizations, as we break down the myths and barriers, they begin to understand that it isn’t more work. Instead, they recognise that sustainable procurement is actually part of their overall work, which is why it shouldn’t be considered a process or a programme. It should be invested in the DNA of the organization, making it just something that people naturally do.

Another factor to consider is that all of our projects are funded by donors. We have our procurement rules and in terms of social and economic aspects of sustainability, women-owned, youth-owned or even local businesses may face barriers to participating. We have to ensure that we can get agreement from the donors who provide the money for a project and ensure that sustainability is aligned with what they want to achieve too, and that they are accepting of that kind of differentiation. Because of this, we always need to work closely with our donors to ensure that this discussion takes place at the beginning of a project and not part way through. 


And are donors generally quite supportive of that?

Yes they are. Most donors are interested in making the world a better place, and they understand that this is a way that they can do that.


Have you noticed a difference in the UN’s use of sustainable procurement over the years?

When I joined UNOPS two and a half years ago, although significant efforts had been made with sustainable procurement, it was still something that headquarters often did alone. We did some training out in the field, but it wasn’t really integrated into what people would see as being their day-to-day responsibility. 

I do believe that has changed now. We’ve come on a long journey within the last few years. Our progress shows the inherent ability of UNOPS to act on things that it deems to be important.


Over the last few years, what do you think have been the key trends, and what are we likely to see continue over time?

I think one of the trends is that we’re actually reporting on is sustainable procurement, which is a great move forward. More organizations are providing us with increasingly more information and data on this. I would also say that more organizations have policies and programmes that relate to sustainable procurement. 

There’s also a strong focus on total cost of ownership, rather than just on the price itself. Again, that’s about looking at things more holistically. 

Another trend that I’ve noticed is that there’s still a greater focus on ‘green procurement’ versus what we define as being ‘sustainable procurement’ (i.e. environmental, social and economic), but as we try to work a little bit more collaboratively with agencies, we hope to see significantly more attention on holistic sustainable procurement.  

I’m also encouraged by seeing  a renewed energy with the Sustainable Procurement Working Group within the UN’s inter-agency Procurement Network. It’s a very promising move forward.


In what ways can sustainable procurement support the SDGs?

If you look at SDG 12 in particular, which addresses responsible consumption and production and includes goals on sustainable procurement, you can see that sustainable procurement clearly has a part to play in achieving the SGDs. If you approach sustainable procurement as the three-legged stool, it is a concept that is significantly integrated into the entire idea of sustainable development, and we see it as a strategic enabler for all of the SDGs.


Do you think that Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) certifications and other certifications are helpful for embedding sustainable procurement? Would you recommend them?

Short answer – yes. What these sorts of certifications do is enable an organization to match itself up and benchmark itself against other entities. Just the process of getting the certificate is important for expanding your thinking. Through the questions that are asked, it often tweaks something in you to say “Yes, we do that. So that’s sustainability” or “Oh, we didn’t think about that.” It gets you thinking.

For two years in a row UNOPS has achieved the gold certificate in sustainable procurement from CIPS. We’re one of only five entities in the world, and the only UN agency to have this rating. Having this recognition has done a few things for us. First, it has highlighted that even when you’re doing well, there’s always room to improve; a few years ago, when we were awarded our first gold certificate, we got 94 out of 100 points. Last year we got 97 out of 100. We are constantly striving to improve our score. It has also provided profile for UNOPS. It tells governments and donors that this is something that’s important to us; it’s something that is necessary for us to be able to fulfil our mission of helping people build better lives and countries achieve sustainable development. 

Since we received the gold standard, we’ve had other UN agencies ask us how we did it and what we’re doing. It’s created a dialogue around sustainable procurement, and I believe that having a dialogue is always the way to improve things. 


And what is the best way you communicate with other UN agencies?

One our main channels of communications is the Procurement Network. Another useful tool is having a great sustainable procurement lead, who is constantly in communication with others within the network.  We also work on a continual basis with UN Environment. Through our sustainable procurement training, which was co-created with UN Environment and International Training Centre of the ILO, we’ve delivered training to UNICEF and WFP. There are a few others that are asking us for training, and now, with the enhanced sense of energy behind the Sustainable Procurement Working Group, I think there will be more regular opportunities for these trainings to take place. 


You’ve made reference to the UNOPS Possibilities Forum a couple of times. Could you tell us a little more about it?       

For the last 25 years or so, I’ve been involved in supplier diversity, working to allow and enable what are often deemed ‘traditionally disadvantaged’ firms (women-owned, youth-owned, local-owned businesses, etc.) to have access to, and to get business from, large organizations. There’s a significant amount of potential for capacity building in that realm.

When I started at UNOPS I realized that there was a great opportunity to make a significant impact on a global scale. When you look at the environmental, social or economic leg of the sustainable procurement stool, it’s all about the possibilities of thinking beyond.

The UNOPS Possibilities Forum (UP Forum) started as a concept when I realized that we needed to do something for sustainable procurement from a social and economic perspective. We needed something more than the typical UN business seminar where there’s often a ‘pay to play’ fee and companies just pitch their product. There has also been somewhat of a lack of focus on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where capacity building is definitively required. We decided to level the playing field by helping these ‘traditionally disadvantaged’ firms gain better access to the marketplace.

We ran a pilot in Amman, in partnership with the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), late in 2016, where we worked primarily with women-owned businesses, although other SMEs participated. Not only was the pilot about giving insight to the UN and how to do business with us, it was also about teaching business owners how to be successful entrepreneurs and run successful businesses. We had two days of talks and panel discussions where successful entrepreneurs shared their experiences. We’re following the workshop up with further capacity training in partnership with the Jordan River Foundation in Amman. Our next workshop  took place in Ethiopia in May, where we  focused on women-owned and youth-owned SMEs. As with the Amman pilot, this was in partnership with DFID who share exactly the same desires that we have with regards to capacity building in these sectors. The takeaway from these workshops is that you might not always be able to get business with the UN, but we want to help them to understand what they need to do to become successful. Our intent is to inspire. 


This really does sound like a passion project of yours. Where has your inspiration come from?

I think capacity building is incredibly important, because whether you’re in a developed country or an LMIC, I don’t think a lot of SMEs, women-owned businesses, etc. actually have the in-depth understanding of what it takes to run a business. It’s incredibly important for people not to get dismayed when things don’t work out perfectly or exactly the way they want. It isn’t a direct or easy path for anyone, there are always obstacles there, so it’s a question of how you find your way around the obstacles and how you keep on being inspired. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

The story is about possibilities. Overall, what we’re trying to do through sustainable procurement is to show the world that with the right knowledge and passion, possibilities can become realities.


Look out for our follow-up piece next week on how UNOPS is improving the way they do their sustainable procurement and what they have planned next.  

Categories: Leadership, Procurement