Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Collaboration just doesn't sit well with strategic procurement functions in local government?

On the Monday the CLG Committee Inquiry into procurement shifted its focus to collaboration. Yet again the Committee struggled to prise information from the witnesses, for example, a simple and predictable question kicked it off "What proportion of councils are up to speed with best practice and, if not [up to speed], what are the barriers?" Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Messrs Taylor, Walsh or Robinson actually provided an answer!

However, we did learn from one of the witnesses a useful nugget "... the last national procurement strategy gave rise to a proliferation of a number of strategic procurement functions, so most councils have got a strategic function". Now that struck me as quite a good thing until Ed Walsh continued: "as a consequence they don't think with any form of collective mentality very easily, so looking at efficiencies and the benefits of economies of scale isn't something that comes easy to local authorities". Sorry, I just don't get that. I don't get it because councils have been collaborating on purchasing for over 50 years; I don't get it because organisations like NEPO and YPO and ESPO and Pro5 all exist. I don't get it because that same national procurement strategy which is praised, or was it criticised, for leading to the introduction of strategic procurement functions in councils, also had a complete section on collaboration!

Then we heard there's the potential for billions of pounds worth of savings in councils - I wonder what the LGA will make of that and what will be the strategy for achieving those savings if, on the strength of that evidence, the Committee advocated further cuts of billions of pounds to council budgets? But then again the Committee were told of evidence that suggests SCAPE in 1,200 local government procurement projects have delivered average savings of 14%.

Now that last savings claim gave Ian Taylor some cause for concern and he cited his own viewed, based on spend analysis, of the potential scope for collaboration, namely, 10-15% of spend was suitable for national buying, +/- 25% suitable for regional buying, and +/- 50% required local buying. I don't know how accurate those figures are but they do strike me as quite reasonable.

So what's the solution? Well the Committee could take on board one of the witnesses suggestions and put in place a centralised national buying organisation, or perhaps a regional structure - hold on though wasn't that what the RIEPs tried to do in partnership with Pro5? Or, as another of the witnesses suggested, the Committee could sort out the fear of failure which is pervasive in local government as a result of potential EU challenges.

My own suggestion is that the Committee will have enough on its plate trying to reconcile the first two days of oral evidence and how to stop local government procurement witnesses undermining anymore the good work of the sector.

I suspect I may return with more comments on the oral evidence but that seems like enough to think on for the time being.

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