Monday, 30 January 2012

Policing pitfalls of 'I see, I want, you buy ASAP'

I’ve decided to revisit the NAO report ‘Mobile Technology in Policing’. Previously I focused on the need for robust challenge and to avoid being bullied into bad procurements in pursuit of political expediency. Arresting as that discussion was, the report provides further lessons on how procurement and programme management effectiveness could be improved; let’s look at just three.

There were three objectives in the procuring the required Blackberry’s, etc.:

1.    Increase police officer visibility to the public;
2.    Reduce unnecessary bureaucracy; and
3.    Increase efficiency and effectiveness of the police service.

Had the objectives been uppermost in the minds of those leading the procurement there would have been a trail of evidence demonstrating the appraisal of alternative ways of achievement. The NAO couldn’t find that evidence.  Instead
, we discover the objectives disguised the true motive and provided a false trail. The primary objective was just getting devices as quickly as possible.  This appears to have been a case of compulsive shopping: ‘I see, I want, you buy ASAP’.  

·      Lesson 1: To deliver good procurement and programme management focus on the problem to be solved and not how fast you can buy.

If you focus on the problem to be solved, provide adequate time and discuss the problem with the supply market you can really get cost effective and innovative solutions.   

Had the problem, rather than the solution, been presented to the market alongside the expressed parallel desire of acquiring mobile fingerprint checking technology, the market may well have produced a truly cost effective, innovative, integrated solution.  That solution could then have not only satisfied the police needs but also provided the UK high-tech industry with something globally tradable and a competitive, first mover, advantage.  Why?  Because had the challenge of a ‘contract bounty’ (the budget) been available that would have removed some of the risk to supplier research and development costs. Nothing particularly new with the concept, just a ‘forward commitment’, yet that opportunity was missed.  Not only has a longer-term UK competitive advantage been sacrificed but also functionality and efficiency. Meanwhile police forces go without the mobile fingerprinting technology.  I would have liked the NAO to have picked this up and reiterated that potential in future reports.

Lesson 2: Provide sufficient time and the challenge of a ‘contract bounty’ to the market if you want cost effective innovation and support the development of UK businesses.

While there are many other lessons to be drawn from the report, one other is worth discussing here.

We learn that the Agency put in place two frameworks which police forces could use to buy the Blackberry’s, etc..  The frameworks were referred to as the 'accelerated package' (I jest not).  The term 'accelerated package' was logical though in that it reflected, that if forces used the standard agreements, that would accelerate the move to IT standardisation - it is not clear if forces were aware of that rationale though.  

An initial risk assessment led the Agency to believe these frameworks would be used and the minimum required uptake would be achieved.  However, closer reading suggests the forces indicated merely that they 'might' use the frameworks.  Later the Agency reversed their assessment, concluding forces would not use the frameworks as confidence in the frameworks was low.  As as result they allowed forces to make their own alternative arrangements.  Why? Supposedly the low take-up of the central contracts was a result of technical problems with one of the contracts.  Why were there technical problems?  That's not clear but I think making a decision in February 2008 to put in place the frameworks and then having those arrangements in place in March 2008, may have proved too rushed. In my experience, such speed is so exceptionally fast that it merits wider investigation. I would suggest the cause is more simplistic and is symptomatic of a lack of key stakeholder engagement throughout the whole programme, not just in putting in place the frameworks.

Although it would have been useful to know, the report doesn't appear to have completed an evaluation of the comparative savings through using centralised/decentralised arrangements.  Lessons may have been learnt for the wider public sector if there was clarity on the cost/benefits of using the centralised arrangements.  It would also be interesting to learn how the 'technical problems' were managed by those leading the procurement?  However, 

Lesson 3: To maximise the uptake of central framework contracts allow sufficient time and focus on stakeholder ownership from defining the need – it’s too late when the contracts are let.

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