Ralph Diacon works for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and is part of the Procurement Management Development Scheme (PMDS) along with six other graduates.
Where and what did you study?
I studied law at Bristol University. It’s a lovely university with the law school at the top of a hill.
I chose law because I thought it would open a lot of doors in the future and would be useful in any possible career choice. During the course I focused on contract law, but also EU competition law, employment law and tort – all good background information for the procurement role.
Did you go straight into work after study?
No, after university, I took a year out to travel the world – to Thailand, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and finally to the US.
After graduating, I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I spent a year working as a volunteer in Africa. I found myself in the middle of Malawi, in the centre of the biggest man-made forest in Africa. It was based near a small village called Luwawa, at an International Tourist Lodge. It was an amazing experience living amongst people who faced such poverty every day, and had so few ways of making a living. It was humbling.
I spent my time working in the lodge during the night and during the day I toured round the local communities. We set up income-generating schemes, like little businesses, selling local produce to the Lodge. The scheme was similar to credit unions, like those set up in Bangladesh, where local people pay back the loans but keep any profit they make. I still keep in touch with the guy at the lodge – he sends me monthly updates on what’s happening.
Why did you choose procurement as a career?
That year abroad was the trigger really. One of the projects I was involved with was setting up a primary school. I had to source building materials for the school – all basic stuff like the bricks and mortar. In Africa, resources are so scarce it was a challenge, but I discovered that I enjoyed this buying aspect of the project along with the legal side, so here I am.
How did you start in this industry?
I started to look for jobs and discovered this scheme set up by the DWP. The Procurement Management Development Scheme is a three-year programme that involves working through the Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply (CIPS) accreditation scheme and you get placed in various departments in DWP for six months each time. I’m on my first placement at the moment – the Commercial Directorate – Strategy and Performance team. DWP keep everyone that’s part of the scheme together, so you get the chance to support each other and share ideas and experiences.
What do you like about your job?
Working in the Strategy and Performance Team, I get a good overview of the whole DWP commercial arena. Working with senior civil servants who have been in their fields for 20-odd years, you can learn a lot. I enjoy being part of the scheme because DWP understands that good training, motivation and a wide experience as possible, makes the managers of the future.
I like the strategy angle, rather than detail, though my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator had me straight down the middle on preference for strategy and detail. I’m also 100% extrovert. I can be quite talkative, but as I don’t get told to shut up all the time, I can’t be too bad.
Describe a typical day
No day is typical I’d say. At the moment, there’s a good mix of individual project work and working with the team. The biggest project on my list is the commercial strategy project which has been re-written from the last strategy of three years ago and focuses on the changing economic environment – it’s just been launched.
Writing a wider policy document within public procurement, you have to go through a process of taking wider objectives into consideration – it’s not just about the money. So, sustainability is a big thing, and ethical considerations plus government issues such as race. Variety within a diverse supply chain is key.
Part of the consultation period is talking to different government departments and seeing what their procurement issues are, and working on grouping all the procurement activity into one central area. It was useful to get an overview of how it’s possible to approach procurement in so many different ways.
I also work within the team that sends updates to senior civil servants on what’s been happening within the Commercial Directorate, and also helping to put together briefs for ministers.
How does your job contribute to the strategic objectives of the company?
Well, it is the strategy department, so quite a lot. We monitor how to spend and how this meets departmental objectives. DWP is growing, as unemployment is on the rise, so there’s plenty to do.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
I’ve been in procurement for only seven months, so I generally have a lot less experience to draw on compared to those around me. So the challenge is to get to the same level of understanding as my colleagues and as soon as possible, and be able to contribute to ideas. Just trying to learn as much as possible and apply it to everyday work. I’m also studying for CIPS exams, so study in the evening as well as trying to fit in a social life. Ok so far.
What has been your biggest achievement in your career to date?
Getting the new strategy signed off is a big achievement. It had to go all the way up in the DWP chain of command and to be signed off by the Permanent Secretary. Oh, and graduating in law.
What have you learnt about yourself in this current role?
I’m good at talking and understanding people and I learn quickly. I can always improve though. I’m not great at the detail, and that’s important in procurement. I also tend to start talking before I start something, and sometimes it helps to think things through.
What qualities are needed to succeed in procurement?
It’s hard to choose as there are so many different roles within the procurement profession. You need people skills, and a level of trust, be a good all-rounder with analytical knowledge. If I had to choose one it would be the ability to communicate and form relationships.
What would you say to a new graduate about going into procurement?
Procurement as a profession is on the rise. The Government is certainly interested in procurement matters as contracts are so valuable. It’s not just making sure the money’s right, but other issues such as social inclusion have to be taken into consideration, as well as quality and innovation. It’s the ability to influence the relationship between you and the supplier, and therefore encourage innovation, equality and diversity. Procurement as a profession allows you to have genuine influence over important issues.