Know the rules

Working with government series #2

By Tim Mahony

Working with government comes with a lot of rules. One of the simplest pieces of advice I have heard came from longtime ACT Independent Michael Moore who, when asked what advice he would give aspiring politicians, answered without hesitation: “know your standing orders.” The standing orders he referred to are the rules that govern the operation of a parliament. It is good advice that applies across the board in the public sector — for buyers and suppliers.

Why so many rules around government buying and contracts?

The main reasons are accountability and transparency — ensuring there is no favour given or received by decision makers and to provide a level playing field that supports fair competition for those looking to sell to government. The rules are also designed to ensure value for money in the spending of taxpayers’ dollars.

Our multi-levelled federal system means there is no single set of rules. Each level of government — national, state and local — will have its own over-arching set of rules to guide their departments and agencies in their purchasing. Within those rules, each department or agency will have their own procurement policy to guide their staff, ensure they can readily follow the rules and account for their spending.

At a federal level, the Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPRs) are the foundation of the Australian Government’s procurement framework. The CPRs are explicit in that individual departments can, and indeed are expected to, design their own approach to procurement, within the rules:

There is sufficient flexibility in these rules to provide opportunities for innovation and for officials to design processes that appropriately reflect the size, scope and risk of the procurement. This underscores my previous article about the benefit of not only finding the right department for your products and services, but also getting to know the right people within it. This will give you the best opportunity to learn how the CPRs are being applied to any particular procurement process. Knowing the rules will help you ask the right questions.

Each jurisdiction will generally have a website dedicated to their buying framework — based on their specific procurement rules. This site provides guidance to buyers and suppliers alike. Each will also have a ‘tender’ site which presents publicly tendered opportunities to supply services and goods over a specified monetary threshold. For example, the NSW Government has its site with a range of useful information about its approach to buying and selling strongly linked to its e-tender site: Remember that not all government purchasing needs to be done via public tender, so not all supply opportunities will be on these sites. They will however publish the awarding of contracts over a certain amount, usually in the vicinity of $10,000. This can be very useful in helping you work out who is buying and what they’re buying, so you can target your pitches.

A list of national, state and territory (and international) procurement guidance and tender sites can be found here:

It is also useful to know that not all government bodies are required to use the public tender websites. According to the ANAO’s 2018–19 Australian Government Procurement Contract Reporting Update only two-thirds of all federal government bodies are subject to the CPRs and required to report their contracts on the AusTender website. Even so, in that year federal government agencies spent almost $65 billion on goods and services. If we consider further spending by those exempt federal bodies and state, territory and local governments, the value of public sector purchasing would be in the hundreds of billions each year. For such a market, it is worth investing time in researching the rules.