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Patsy Northern exudes enthusiasm when she talks about procurement. She is currently the head of commercial and competitions at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), and has an approach to her job that is principled, focused, determined and resilient. She is accountable for critical and extremely high-profile services, such as delivery of multi-million pound solutions for incarceration and rehabilitation of offenders.
"The public sector provides an opportunity to do a job you love in a sector where you make a difference.
"To me, it’s almost like a hobby - I put the time in because it’s fun. The day I stop enjoying it is the day I stop doing it," she points out.
Patsy attributes her work ethic to her upbringing when she worked for the family business. "We all had to pitch in, even when we had other jobs. I’d go into the office in the morning having cut 5,000 lettuces before work."
Her first role outside the family setting was as a clerk at the electricity board in South Wales. "I took the first job I was offered, as opportunities for women were scarce in Pembrokeshire where I was brought up and at that time I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. I ended up doing the work of three people but I was still bored."
She then spent a year working full-time in the family business. "It was great commercial experience. Working for a small enterprise, you have to be innovative, entrepreneurial, and develop commercial management skills to survive."
Still unsure of what she wanted to do in the longer term, she applied for a procurement role in the health service. "I knew from the interview that I had a good chance of getting the job - I was right and I loved it from the start." Initially, she was dealing with purchase orders and contracts, but this didn’t last long - within four years, a series of promotions led to becoming the head of procurement and running the team
Seeing procurement from a management level highlighted to Patsy the shortage of commercial and procurement skills in the public sector at the time, and sparked her interest in building capacity in the profession.
"I took all the opportunities I could, with colleagues setting up learning and development opportunities for procurement across Wales and becoming involved in taking forward such initiatives as establishing a procurement strategy board," she says.
Decade of study
It was during her time in health that she began to study again. One of her managers had spotted Patsy’s potential and invested in a programme of study for her. This kick-started a decade of formal education, while she still worked full-time.
"I did an Higher National Certificate in Public Administration, then I undertook a Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply qualification - that took me about seven years to complete in all. As part of this I completed my MBA in 1999."
Throughout this time, Patsy was working her way up the career ladder to become Head of Procurement and Distribution at Pembrokeshire and Derwen NHS Trust. Working at this level brought its own challenges. "I had to make eight people unexpectedly redundant just before Christmas. It was a horrible experience and I swore that I would never again be in that position. Since then, my focus has always been on the future - preparing for what is coming and positioning my team to take advantage of change, not be the victim of it."
It was also in the health service that experience taught Patsy to stand up for what she knew to be right. "Having been in some difficult situations myself, I realised how important it is to have principles and speak up when you know something isn’t right in the workplace."
After 14 years in health, Patsy realised she needed a new challenge. An opportunity presented itself in the form of the head of contracts and procurement in HM Prison Service (HMPS).
"I spent days swotting up on the right words to use in the interview. They didn’t offer me the job at first, and when they did they expressed concern over the limited smaller-scale experience I had. When asked for a reference, my Chief Executive just pointed out that procurement is procurement - it just had more noughts on the end than I was used to but that I had a breadth of experience that was actually broader then HMPS were looking for."
She was convinced that her broader commercial experience and education was enough to enable her to make a success of such a promotion.
Patsy turned HMPS’s procurement operations into a success and implemented what she calls "sensible procurement," through category management. Part of her team was shortlisted for the Kelly’s award for excellence in purchasing and supply in 2001 and won it in 2002.
Patsy was motivated to apply for the job in the Prison Service after completing her MBA but points out that her previous procurement experience was essential. "My experiences in health came with me and have stood me in good stead," she says.
Patsy positioned her then team as an "interpreter-enabler-deliverer." This allowed them to add real value to the organisation. In 2004 she wanted to broaden her horizons further and moved to work as part of the shadow organisation that became the National Offender Management Service - she became commercial lead for PFI and Market Testing procurement and commercial management. In 2005 I was asked to write the NOMS commercial strategy and this led to the establishment of a specialist commercial team that took on board novel and innovative projects building on the existing portfolio and adding in estates and IT procurement; electronic monitoring as well as strategy design to support development of commissioning.
Such strategic thinking made her an ideal candidate in 2005 for her current SCS role in NOMS.
"Procurement can get even better than it is now, particularly in developing relationships to ensure we can deliver on high-risk projects. We need to talk to our suppliers, not hide from them. We need to build trust and respect for the role procurement plays both with internal and external stakeholders and specifically with senior colleagues."
"It’s an excellent and highly accessible profession. Experience gained in other roles will always be of use in procurement, and procurement experience is of use elsewhere. "