Friday, 27 January 2012

It takes two to tango but who leads?

The NAO have just published a report exploring the rationale behind equipping England’s 43 police forces with Blackberry’s and other mobile technology.  

Referring to the report, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:
"The roll-out of mobile technology to police forces was achieved against a tight timescale and at reasonable cost. Too little consideration was given, however, to the need for the devices or how they would be used. In the majority of forces, the benefits have not so far extended beyond simply allowing officers to spend more time out of the station.
"There is still the opportunity to achieve value for money, though, if more forces use the technology to improve the efficiency of their processes and make savings in their back-office activities."
I may revisit the report at a later date and explore some of the detail, but one finding immediately triggered a train of thought. The report concluded that the introduction of mobile technology by the then Government was a policy decision simply to procure and deploy devices. 
We’ve seen similar ‘mandates’ before, remember the NHS IT system when Tony Blair said ‘how fast can you get it?’ 
How many more times will we hear this type of mantra?   The ‘Yes Minister’ response which acts on this type of ‘how high should I jump’ Purchasing Requisition really needs to be highlighted and challenged.  Gateway Reviews should protect against these ‘Requisitions’, yet the evidence of that happening seems scant. The last few months suggest the Reviews lack that robustness. Maybe it’s the Reviewers who lack the spine to really challenge a weak business case from a strong politician. Perhaps the Reviews need to have a vulnerability/fear factor question added.
I recently encountered another version of this syndrome when asked if I knew of business cases for providing councillors with iPads.  After some discussion I made it clear that I could help produce a business case but on the proviso there needed to be an open mind as to whether the business case would stack up or not.  A business case should not be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  I also suggested that, from a PR perspective, there may be a high political price to pay for the issue of iPads while residents faced worries about paying for their weekly shopping, filling their cars with petrol, and whether or not they’d have a job.  Perhaps that’s why there hasn’t been any further discussion. 
Setting aside potential efficiency gains, it’s clear to me that sometimes the best procurement savings come from avoidance, i.e. ‘do we really need this?’.    
I digress, but my point remains – is there a culture emerging of procurement professionals acting as ‘gofers’ (no comments on Gordon the Gofer required, thanks).  Having said that, procurement as gofers is not too far removed from Maude’s description of ‘shopping’.   
Surely it is not too hard for procurement professionals to protect senior politicians and budget holders from themselves?   Perhaps it is for some?  But if that is the case, maybe we need some form of ‘whistle blowers’ style protection for the procurement professionals who need to say ‘no’ but are fearful of the personal consequences.  Peter Smith recently alluded to CIPS standing up for public procurement professionals – should the heavy hitters of CIPS use their influence with senior politicians to help avoid future NAO reports echoing the type ‘just get it’ mandate?     

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