Friday, 17 February 2012

"And while they are at it, how about more supportive procurement?"

Today's BBC news carries a story about challenges facing the Vauxhall car plant at Ellesmere Port which  looks under threat a the moment.  When I say 'car plant' I mean it in the losest sense of the word, as the plant is really an assembler of components brought in from various parts of the world.

Nevertheless part of the story fascinated me, namely, that the local Labour MP asked " ... and while we are at it, how about more supportive procurement?"  By this I think he is asking why public sector organisations are not specifying Vauxhall.  He suggests that the local police are no longer using Astra but one of those foreign types.  It would be have been particularly interesting if a photograph of Ellesmere Port carpark demonstrated the employees were 'buying local' and even more interesting if we knew what type of car the MP himself drives.  That would say a lot about perceived value for money.

We seem to be hearing this sort of buy local policy more and more.  How could it work for cars?  Let's be honest, a car has now become more like a commodity with little differentiation, you can easily specify the functionality, m.p.g., etc and do a price comparison and a host of alternative options will be available.  The same would apply in spending public money - define the need and establish what's available.  While I am sympathetic to the workers at Ellesmere Port and their families, I just can't grasp how 'supportive procurement' would be justified, if it means
'buy locally made cars in spite of them being a commodity'. Supportive procurement, to me shouldn't provide a short-term crutch.

However, if the UK industrial policy aimed at niche global public sector needs, there may be an alternative approach.  Why can't the world class designers speak to the 'big fleet buyers' and establish what their unique needs are, particularly what their dream functional vehicle would look like and seize the day. I'm sure that pursuing designing for those niches would steal a mark on others.  I said something similar with the lost opportunity for mobile police technology. I'm sure more functional vehicles could be designed and then successfully marketed.  Wouldn't it be significantly better if supportive public procurement was a catalyst and stimulus for innovation rather than a crutch?

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