For those not in the know, procurement is a tough job. And according to one of the leading figures who played a significant role in heading up one of the largest national infrastructure projects in Australian history, it’s way more high stress than you might have thought.
In this 5 Minutes With, GovNews talks to the former Chief Procurement Officer at NBN Co, Coretta Bessi, whose unique views on her highly specialised role in the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) reveal a deeply intricate way of working that’s been vital to the success in collaborating with stakeholders and delivery partners.
Since leaving NBN Co in 2016, she’s entered into a consulting role in management. She says she’s been drawn to training and education, and working with local and state governments.
Her current engagement is with the Transport for NSW division, while looking across the whole cluster and “how you can drive procurement in transport, whether it’s Roads and Maritime Services, Sydney Trains, NSW Trains, State Transit Authority”.
It’s been an interesting professional journey for Ms Bessi, moving from a government business enterprise like NBN Co to working with local and state government organisations. Here we chat to her about running the procurement aspect of an organsiation of that scale.
Q: The National Broadband Network is a particularly high profile project that’s received a lot of attention and critical examination since it was initiated, what was it like to shoulder the weight of such an integral part it?
A: It was an incredible journey to be part of it. I was constantly reminded that it was a ‘nation building’ project, a legacy, and it was a one of the most comprehensive and probably the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history. What was interesting in that in terms of shouldering the weight, it was so high profile that not one day went past that we weren’t in the newspapers. Everywhere you went, everyone had an opinion, right or wrong, whether it was the mums at school, the taxi driver, the guy at the news agent – everyone had a view on it.
But in terms of procurement, it was a very integral team from the earliest days, because the procurement team was right up front in terms of engaging the market in designing and building and operating the network. Having so much of the capex and opex with external providers, with technology partners and delivery partners, there were really high expectations on the CPO role and the whole procurement function. Our focus was how we actually balance that whole build profile, ensuring that we’re rolling out the NBN and the good commercial value that any government needs to have for Australian taxpayers.
Q: What were the main challenges that you faced in your role at NBN Co?
A: I’d say the pure scale. We were doubling the size of the build footprint and the activations footprint year-on-year. Even on some years, they’d calculated for that financial year, we had done more build than all of the years before it. It’s very different to your usual manufacturing business, or any kind of business-as-usual organisation that focusses on goods and services and how much they sell and how much they buy and get year-on-year savings.
The whole infrastructure project presents the real procurement challenge of how do you deliver a project at the time and balance their revenue and peak funding with the cost to achieve it. It meant that everything was done in really tight timeframes – much faster than you would ever expect in any other public organisation or enterprise. Combining the teamwork with really long hours in a very high stress environment, once they signed off on one deal, they’d already be starting on the next, so it was a good challenge, very energising, very exhilarating.
Q: How does a state-owned body like NBN Co maintain compliance with pricing and procurement controls? Is that a particularly tricky balancing act to manage?
A: A little bit! NBN Co is actually a government business enterprise (GBE), a wholly owned Commonwealth company, accountable to the government as a sole shareholder, but it does mean that it has the flexibility and the discretion in operational technology and network design decisions, as long as they operate within the constraints of the equity funding agreement.
I continually refer to the ‘G’ and the ‘E’ in ‘GBE’, to keep reinforcing that. Although we were government, we had to operate as a business. We had a business case, we had a budget, we needed to deliver it, and we needed to ensure that the approach we had was very commercial, but it did have a high degree of transparency as we needed.
So the whole compliance with pricing and procurement controls as a CPI, I needed to understand the government’s statement of expectations (SOE) and the special access undertaking, and that refers to what the procurement rules were, but once I understood that they basically stated that we need a clear process, reasonable requirements of procedural fairness, probity, fair dealing and good industry practice, then my focus was really around how do we do that but be fair pragmatic and commercial in tying ourselves in more red tape. The biggest balancing act was how do we balance cost and time and try and streamline that who probity process.
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Q: The federal election of 2013 meant significant changes to the NBN rollout (from FTTP to FTTN), what impact did this have on NBN Co management of the rollout?
A: It had a huge impact. It was before my time, but as I understand, there was an incredible amount of work from various different teams, including engineering, finance, procurement, IT, network deployment to review how they could actually deliver the NBN through multiple technologies. The media really focused on if you were allocating premises from FTTP to FTTN, they were saying it was very controversial. Likewise they didn’t like it in terms of fixed wireless, and even more recently which was the HFC, the hybrid fibre coaxial cable that we secured. Realistically from the 2013 federal election, years later, management of NBN Co are still trying to move the conversation from this media driven technology debate to this commercial outcomes focussed discussion about what we’re going to have across Australia.
My take on it? Realistically, the whole organisation has done a stunning job of all the different commercial products they’ve got in the multi-technology mix. Particularly in things like launching the ‘Sky Master’ satellite for remote parts of Australia has an enormous impact. So I think the technology discussion has taken over some of the achievements.
Q: Leadership being a vital part of such a high level in procurement, what sort of knowledge and business acumen do you feel is required to succeed in helping to deliver a vast project as the NBN?
A: This sounds a bit trite but I think soft skills are most important. Technical skills, not so much. For example, I didn’t need to know telecommunications infrastructure, I didn’t need to be across all of the acronyms that go with them to succeed – and there were so many acronyms! But you do need to have strength in three main areas.
- Strategic problem solving skills – having the confidence and the agility to understand what a situation is, how the organisational objectives are aligned, what your approaches could be and how you can innovate the commercial model in the process and your method in getting a solution.
- Dealing with ambiguity – having comfort in uncertainty and having strong resilience. Employees often talked about NBN being in ‘dog years’ – you’ve got seven years of experience and stress all being jammed into each year that you’ve worked there. It was very much like that, you’d really have to balance your mental and your physical health and family life when you’re in such an intense work environment and be comfortable that you just keep getting up day after day.
- Relationship skills – this means communicating with directors, team members, delivery partners, internal stakeholders. Procurement is a real people job, and leadership within such a massive project requires so many links and connections with people. At NBN Co, there was a huge amount of very passionate stakeholders and they all needed procurement assistance or advice or solutions. As I kept saying to everybody, they all want to do the right thing. They want to deliver and they want it to be simple. Our job was about trying to do that for them.
Q: Any tips or advice for anyone entering a key-decision making role procurement at any government level?
- Before you enter a government role, particularly in a key decision making area, my view is you need to check out the culture at the top. If you’re entering a role, whether it’s in procurement or any other profession in government, you need to have the accountability and the support to drive those outcomes. My view is the CEO and CFO at NBN Co are really inspirational. They’re both commercially driven and metrics driven, but they’re also focused on genuine, authentic leadership.
- When you’re in the role, testing the assumptions of other people and of yourself. That means knowing the legislation, knowing the expectations from ministers, getting across the source documents by which you have to operate within, and reviewing what you do have and seeing what extra red tape you’re building in. From NBN and more recently for local and state government, it continually amazes me that people in public positions make assumptions of what they need to do, what they need to abide by, who they need to inform, and how they need to do something, but they don’t understand what they themselves are required to do.So government is complex, councils and state governments are complex, but they all constrain themselves so much further that what they’re required, all in the name of ‘risk management’ and building extra support, extra processes and checks and balances. My tip would be to understand the situation, recognise the risks, test the all the assumptions from yourself and others, look at the options and then make a pragmatic decision.