Saturday, 8 June 2013

Police procurement on the line

There's something very odd about a room where the most common item of clothing worn appears to be a white shirt and the main subject of discussion is how difficult it is to buy white shirts.

Yes, that's what the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee seemed to focus on at its meeting on 5 June when the subject was really Police Procurement.

However, this evidence session should, in my mind, be included within the Public Administration Select Committee's Inquiry into Public Procurement. The evidence had a much more realistic assessment of the difficulties associated with centralisation.

The Committee started with a reality check: why, when Gershon, in 2004, highlighted the need for a 'uniform' approach to buying white shirts for the 43 police forces,  has such a seemingly simple aspiration proved so difficult to implement? Yet, that's the question which needs an unequivocal answer to, and plan to address, before 'the grand collaborative public procurement vision' should be embarked upon.

Theoretically, the silver bullet has been found for the police in the form of the Procurement Hub. It appears the aspiration was that there would have been 100% sign-up to the Hub last year, yet so far only 2%, yes, TWO PERCENT has been reached. The new aspiration is that 80% will be achieved by the end of the current parliament. Asked, what milestone has been set for 12 months time on the journey from 2% to 80%, there was a sense of embarrassment - that question seemed to take the Permanent Secretary by surprise! It does make you question if there is the least likelihood of the 'stretch target' being achieved.

What are the problems with bringing about increased ownership of the Procurement Hub? Answer:
  • Cultural issues;
  • Changes in processes; and
  • Resistance to change.

But hold on a second, the Procurement Hub will not standardise on one uniform white shirt, or one supplier, it's a collaborative 'framework'. Sounds a bit like legalising 'pick 'n' mix' as opposed to Gershon's vision.

Nevertheless, the route to better police collaboration on procurement may happen as a result of the 'levers' which can now be applied:
  1. Formal fiduciary duty for value for money;
  2. Direct relationship between the Home Office and individual Forces;
  3. Inspection regimes;
  4. Funding mechanisms; and 
  5. Public accountability and public scrutiny which individual Police and Crime Commissioners have to the electorate.
Am I wrong in that the only change is the arrival of PCCs on the scene? Have PCCs recognised their role within a national procurement strategy?

Setting that aside, the Committee asked some very clever questions, for example: what lessons have been learnt from the Firebuy disaster (sic)?  What lessons have been learnt from the prison's experience of standardising on uniforms and saving 30%? Unfortunately, it wasn't clear what has been learnt. Then there was an awkward question about SpikesCavell - if what I think I heard was correct, 43 police forces have been spending £25k each a year for six years and the reports haven't been fit for purpose. No one asked though if that was due to a lack of a strategic approach to working with SpikesCavell or bad specifying? Then we heard SpikesCavell will no longer be used. I'd be surprised if SpikesCavell don't want to issue some sort of public response.

The evidence session had a 'chuckle brothers' feel to it, all very amiable; the perfect atmosphere for discussing a bit of stupid sourcing. Now, I always like a good example of stupid sourcing and the Committee didn't disappoint - £0.5m spent on rubber bullets which didn't pass UK safety standards - to cap that, those giving evidence didn't seem to be aware of that! Looks like there needs to be some improvement in management information. 

So will this evidence help 'the grand collaborative public procurement vision'? Well, let's face it, if you can't make progress in nine years on buying white shirts in a 'command and control' service like the police, you really need to ask yourself is your route-map right. 

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