Friday, 1 November 2013

What drives local government procurement improvement?

I'm sure many of you have been eagerly awaiting the evidence sessions on local government procurement to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. On Monday the Committee  had its first session of oral evidence which is now published.

I had previously highlighted what I felt may be worth exploring, but it doesn't really look as if either the  Committee or LGA have spent anytime learning from history and would rather listen to some suspect assertions.

A good starting point was the Committee trying to establish what drives procurement improvement? Sadly, the LGA spokesperson had to have that question broken down into bite-sized chunks before the Committee came to his rescue. Then we heard, what I consider to be absolute nonsense, that the electorate are driving change through the ballot box. Thankfully the Committee had enough sense to question that assertion too. Having interviewed hundreds of local government procurement stakeholders this was the first time I have ever heard anyone suggest there is something in a manifesto about local government procurement. It's all about campaigns and the X factor in one council it seems.

We heard that the LGA have been working on a national procurement strategy since 2006 - why so little progress? Well perhaps, and I quote, "I am not sure a national framework is terribly helpful". We may be in a better position to judge whether a national procurement strategy would be helpful if they considered the evidence of the impact of the first NPS - there were annual impact assessments completed, why weren't they drawn upon? There were also some academic papers and from memory a ODPM financed impact assessment.

We heard of recent investment in spend analysis in the NE but the results are still awaited. I wish someone had asked what happened to the previous spend analysis completed under the RIEPs or even the use of the published spend data?

The LGA also stumbled when asked about how effective procurement is - in a nutshell the LGA "certainly know what good [procurement] is like". 'Good procurement' from an LGA perspective seems to look like pre-contract supply market engagement, considering Value for Money, getting outcomes people want, and prompt payment. I'm sure that answer helped the Committee a lot!

We also had what seemed like an advertising feature for 'The Chest' - I have had some experience of 'The Chest' and would caution against believing it is a universal panacea, it is a tool. One of the councils' spokeswomen said "we are a business" and suggested they were good with data - that lacked some of its punch when they said they didn't know how long it took to pay suppliers. The same spokesperson announced: "to be frank we do not do many tenders over the EU now" - it seems that's because they have developed a risk based approach to procurement which rarely uses PQQs (I seem to be one of the old school which doesn't think PQQs are all bad) and insists on Procurement being involved in every procurement over £1,000.

They also fell into that trap of greater central government interference in local government procurement - a wonderful answer worth quoting:
In terms of a mandate - that is a word I actually quite like in terms of the encouragement or the direction of local authorities - firstly working in an aligned was is improtant. If we had the same rulebook - I would like them to adopt [ours] - I am very passionate about my role, as you can see - I think there would be big advantages to the business community and voluntary community, because clearly there would be one way of working, one buyer approach and one system.
I don't think that's what the questioner meant but nevertheless why answer the question if you have an answer you want to give.

We also heard that nobody cares where you buy paperclips from. Actually, I suspect if you run a local paperclip supply business you might!

To crown it all we had the LGA spokesperson refer to one of their Productivity Advisors as "not a particularly nice guy but very good at his job" - pity they named the assignment the person had worked on. You just couldn't make it up!

I'm really concerned that the lessons learnt from that past have not been probed.

Some fantastic examples of good procurement were shared but I really do hope the Committee take some of the evidence with a very strong pinch of salt.

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