Sunday 22 April 2018

Meet Paul, the man with €9bn to spend

State's first ever Chief Procurement Officer has the fattest chequebook and the deepest shopping trolley in the land, but will he save us cash or send money overseas, asks Mark Keenan

A fresh-faced, 46-year-old from Drumcondra, Mr Quinn is the youngest of five children who grew up opposite Bertie Ahern’s St Luke’s HQ.
A fresh-faced, 46-year-old from Drumcondra, Mr Quinn is the youngest of five children who grew up opposite Bertie Ahern’s St Luke’s HQ.

Paul Quinn has €9bn to spend this year – on everything from plastic-coated paper clips to 5.56mm bullets for semi-automatics.

The great big round number means he's just become the man with Ireland's fattest chequebook – and its deepest shopping trolley. The good news is that he seems relaxed about it.

But most importantly for the Irish taxpayer (and the troika) is that in his newly appointed role as the State's first ever Chief Procurement Officer for the Public Service, he aims to save €500m within three years on our (and their) behalf.

That's a cut of 7pc in what the State spends on stuff and services – from legal contracts to loo roll and boiler lagging to glossy consultancy reports from the big four accountancy firms.

As the most important civil servant you're never heard of, Mr Quinn was hired in January – snatched by Government from an armour plated cradle of hard bitten bargain buying at Eircom – where he saved the comms operator E100m in his last six years as boss of its procurement function.

Mr Quinn's appointment signals that cabinet is now properly under way in the long promised procurement reform outlined in the programme for Government.

The radical overhaul he leads will impact on businesses great and small right across the country simply because nobody buys more stuff and services from Irish suppliers than the State itself.

By amalgamating the state's purchasing punch to save a half a billion euros on everything from tanks (army and septic) to bags (tea and postal) and pens (scribbling and council stray horse holding), Mr Quinn also realises that his appointment presents a double-edged sword for the rest of us.

On one hand, he'll give: huge savings from suppliers and money which is so badly needed for services elsewhere. On the other hand, he'll take away: namely a big chunk of state spending money which currently ends up in the pockets of Irish businesses.

ECONOMY

A half a billion is a lot of spending money to take out of the economy.

"Yes a half a billion is a lot of cash. It's ambitious, but it's achieveable. Remember that centralising procurement to this degree is a very new departure for the State."

So where do you start with a job that size?

"The first step was coming up with an implementation plan to pull together all the elements of procurement from across the State. This report has been submitted and a couple of weeks ago it was approved by Ministers Howlin and Hayes.

"The next is to assemble the team we require to tackle the job at hand and to inform all affected what we plan to do.

"We intend showing the plan to the public within a few months once we've run it by the stakeholders – procurement staff in different state organisations (500 to 600 people), industry, suppliers and so on."

Sources at Eircom say our first CPO is an efficient and effective operator with a reputation for fairness. "He's always been open to hear what people have to say and prepared to consider new ideas," said one member of staff.

It seems Mr Quinn thrived in the master class of change that saw Eircom transform from the state and union run monolith he encountered when he first joined as a trainee technician in 1984 ( when it took a year to get a phone line in) – to the lean, private broadband sector battler we can't get through to today.

In the old days he utilised an Eircom scholarship scheme to take an engineering degree and later obtained an MBA in Management, studying by night.

Known as a progressive organiser, he found himself increasingly in roles to lead changes in new systems, technologies and functions in a sector and a company that were forced to reinvent at speed.

But the notion that the State should have a centralised purchasing policy seems like an obvious idea. Why hasn't it happened before now?

"Procurement was only starting to emerge as a recognised discipline during my time in Eircom, where previously it had been viewed as an administrative role.

TIGHT CONTROLS

"On a government scale, the UK have had it for a while, but not at the level we're looking at. Scotland and Northern Ireland are already there with the sort of tight controls we're looking at and Wales is now moving into that space.

"A proper centralised procurement policy can be a really big enabler to any organisation, state or private, and has become a more recognised way to deliver value."

To cut costs that is? "Yes."

So down to brass tacks. How does this year's procurement spend break down?

"Around €2bn is unaddressable, so that leaves €7bn with leeway. The largest spend overall comes in health, which accounts for around 45pc of all the money (€4bn).

"Next comes construction, about €2bn; and then equally around €1bn each is spent in the areas of local government and education."

He describes a three-pronged approach. First demand – do we need everything we're buying? Check. Second, specification – do we need the spec we're buying and can we homogenise to increase purchasing power and ultimately gain discounts? Check. Finally comes the €9bn dollar question – cost – the price we're paying. By his reputation at Eircom, it's safe to assume that we'll be paying less or there'll be no cheque.

But in a small open economy under strict EU competition rules, might the smaller number of higher value contracts that will result simply attract more foreign companies sniffing for Irish state tenders, and therefore ultimately take more money right out of the economy?

"There are all sorts of trade offs which I can't really comment on.

"But there is certainly an obligation on the State to deliver value for the taxpayer, and ultimately that's what my job is about.

"We're also bound by EU procurement directives. It's my own personal view that you have to let the market equalise itself by putting your tenders out there. As it stands over 90pc of Irish state tenders end up back with Irish businesses."

Buying all our widgets in less places will surely increase the potential for graft?

"I have no knowledge of graft and it has not been brought to my attention, but risk is certainly always an issue from a procurement prospective.

"As we centralise more and we reduce the number of people engaged in procurement overall, this brings down the level of risk and raises the level of professionalism and control overall.

"There are already far more checks and balances in the public procurement system than in the private sector, you've got the Auditor General, the Public Accounts committee, internal audits and so on."

A fresh-faced, 46-year-old from Drumcondra, Mr Quinn is the youngest of five children who grew up opposite Bertie Ahern's St Luke's HQ. Gadget smarts are in the family – his father was an electrician with Hoover.

At Vincents School in Glasnevin, maths, science and the FCA were his thing.

"The FCA allowed me to do things young people didn't get to do, to drive trucks, how to become a teacher and an instructor. Yes... and to shoot firearms.

"It taught me a lot of things about life, people in general and about leadership, much of which I would later end up using in management roles."

He went to Eircom as a trainee technician in the time of "A and B button" phones and used the in house scholarship scheme to gain a degree in engineering, later taking an MBA in Management.

He moved up the ranks and became increasingly singled out for roles which involved tackling changes of systems and technologies before taking over procurement.

Ireland's first cash "Q" is amenable, upbeat and down to earth but it's plain to see that he's new to "core" civil service. For example, he's obviously not used to having a department PR apparatchik sit across the table to occasionally help him "rephrase" his answers.

It must remind him that he's truly "in the army" now.

And some of his logical technician brain bits remain. While others might complain about the blinky sensor lighting switching off in his office whenever we stop moving, the Drumcondra man sees it differently: "There's nothing at all wrong with the light sensors," he smiles.

"They're doing what they're designed to do. They're keeping us all on our toes."

Quinn's worth? Real value, the Government hopes.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business