Can you tell us about your career path to date?
I am lucky to have had quite a varied career to date. I did my traineeship with Shepherd & Wedderburn, before staying on for several years in its Commercial Property division. I then moved to a more senior role in commercial property at McGrigors. I had a great experience with both firms, but in 2010 a vacancy for a manager came up in the Legal Services team at City of Edinburgh Council, which really attracted me.
At the council I was principal solicitor for Property & Planning, managing a team of solicitors. I loved it, and it made me realise that I wanted to gain a wider experience in local government. From there, in 2015, I moved to Stirling Council as its Chief Governance Officer. At Stirling I was responsible for legal, but also internal audit, licensing, committees/elected member support, the Provost’s office and elections. I also clerked meetings of the full council, was its statutory monitoring officer and a depute returning officer. I very much enjoyed my time in Stirling, but in late 2018 the opportunity arose to come back to Edinburgh Council as its Chief Procurement Officer, and further develop my career, a role I was delighted to take up.
What does your current role encompass?
I manage the council’s Commercial & Procurement Service, which comprises about 50 staff. In CPS we support all procurement activity that takes place across the council, and manage the associated payments system. We also have a dedicated Contracts & Grant Management team in CPS, to help support the robust and consistent management of council suppliers.
By way of context, in 2018-19 the council spent approximately £635 million on third party suppliers. The scale and breadth of work the team does is amazing, from supporting the procurement of the current Edinburgh Tram Extension through to assisting with the purchasing of catering supplies for our schools, and everything in between. It really makes you appreciate the broad range of hugely important services that the council delivers. Given the scale of this spend, and the highly regulated nature of public sector procurement, my team has a vital role in making sure the council is spending taxpayers’ money in a cost-effective way, and complying with the relevant regulations and internal controls. More importantly, though, we want to ensure the council is purchasing in a way that is also supporting the council’s strategic objectives.
What has been your main driver for working in the public sector?
I know it sounds quite contrived, but I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people. Looking back, I can also now see a part of my dad, who was a GP, having rubbed off on me, and the idea of public service being ingrained in me. When I was in private practice I sat on the children’s panel (where I met my wife), but I wanted to do more, and make it my career.
I really enjoyed my time in the firms I worked for; I had some wonderful colleagues, great experiences and senior people who invested in me and made me a much better lawyer. However, I realised that I got greater satisfaction from working in-house, and felt I could make more of a difference there. I really love local government, working with likeminded people in a large and hugely diverse organisation to help improve the lives of our local communities. I find it very rewarding.
Why did you decide to make a sideways move, away from a purely legal role, and what has been the appeal of procurement?
When I was a principal solicitor in the council’s legal team I worked on some great projects, like the council’s Atria office development that the Law Society of Scotland is now based in. However, after a period of time I felt I could offer more, and wanted to take on greater responsibility to do that. The procurement role was hugely appealing, because of the opportunity to help influence how the council buys its goods and services, and the strategic objectives the council can secure though that, including for the benefit of the local economy. For instance, last year 47% of our core spend was with SMEs, while 70% of our suppliers confirmed they pay the real living wage. We also secured 50 new jobs and over 130 apprenticeships through community benefits that we had suppliers sign up to. Where we need to make a purchase, we want to be able to do so in a way that benefits our residents and our businesses.
You have held on to your solicitor status by maintaining your practising certificate. What value do you see in doing so?
I like to think my legal experience brings another dimension to the team, to supplement the knowledge and skills of the highly qualified procurement professionals that we have – I’ll leave it to others to decide whether or not it does! In particular, though, with my background, I can help ensure the council is compliant, but also bring a commercial approach to risk management and compliance, especially on more complex and sensitive matters. Being a lawyer myself also helps in filtering legal advice that we receive, or not having to seek that advice in the first place.
An outsider’s perception might be that procurement is all about getting something for the lowest cost. Is that a fair assumption, or is it more nuanced than that?
The scale of the financial challenge facing all local authorities is well documented. Securing savings from our external spend can be a big part of that, and the council has already secured around £190 million of procurement savings since 2013-14. Despite that, we are certainly not looking to drive a race to the bottom, and we always include an appropriate price/quality ratio in our tenders, as it is very important that we are getting the right level of quality, and purchasing in a manner that is supporting the council’s strategic objectives. We want suppliers that share the same values as we do, so we want our supply chain to have opportunities for local SMEs, to be tackling modern slavery, to be helping us address climate change and to be paying a good wage and offering fair work practices.
What are the key challenges or hot topics for procurement teams in 2020?
I’d say three things: (1) mitigating the potential risks to our supply chain from Brexit, (2) maximising the social value we can deliver from our contracts while also securing value for money; and (3) working with colleagues and key partners to help address the climate emergency.
How have attitudes and working practices in the legal profession changed since you started out?
The profession has clearly modernised, with more flexible approaches to how people wish to work and how they wish their careers to develop, in addition to a greater number of areas of law to specialise in. There are also many more opportunities for talented people to pursue alternative career paths, including in-house, which is great to see.
What advice would you give lawyers who want to start a career in-house? What makes a good in-house lawyer?
First, find a business, industry or sector that you are passionate about and has values that you share. Secondly, understand the business, so you know the context in which your advice is being given. Thirdly, be proactive and get out there, being known as someone who is great at working alongside colleagues, and gives clear and practical legal advice, that is solution driven. Finally, be risk aware, not risk averse.
What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?
I’m not sure it was amusing at the time, but as a trainee I had the ignominy of falling asleep in a boardroom at the completion of a corporate deal. In my defence this was late Friday afternoon, and I had only had about 10 hours of sleep since the Tuesday morning. It taught me that a career in M&A was not for me.
What’s been the biggest challenge and the biggest reward of your career to date?
Undoubtedly my current role. Having the chance to help maximise the outcomes that Edinburgh can secure through its considerable buying power, and further the strategic priorities of the council in a complex regulatory field, is a great challenge, and one I am really enjoying. I am also fortunate to have a fantastic team, and was delighted when we won two awards at last year’s GO Awards (the national awards for public sector procurement in Scotland), including being highly commended in the Team of the Year category.
Finally, what do you love about your job, and what do you love doing when the working day is done?
I love the people in the council, always there to keep you supported, and grounded! Outside of work, I am kept busy by family life with my wife and three children, and am also vice-chair of a housing association that operates in the northern part of Edinburgh, which is great to be involved in. Stupidly, I made a New Year’s resolution to run a marathon, so there is some training to do for that too!
Iain Strachan, Chief Procurement Officer, City of Edinburgh Council