Monday, 27 January 2014

When obfuscation meets incisive questioning on collaborative procurement

On the 22 June the NI Assembly Public Accounts Committee published its report on collaborative procurement in Northern Ireland - far from a glowing endorsement for those leading on collaborative procurement.

However, as some of you will recognise I am intrigued by some of the oral evidence sessions at public procurement inquires. The Report includes the witness evidence given by key players in civil service procurement in Northern Ireland to the Committee on 5 June 2013. On this occasion those asking the questions were remarkably well informed on public procurement and their expectations. Unlike so many of the Inquiries I have discussed previously (for example, the recent CLG Committee Inquiry), the MLAs were not prepared to be distracted but asked probing and detailed questions - to me they were exemplary in their scrutiny.

So what do I mean by probing and not being distracted? Let's look at the questioning regarding the CPD (Central Procurement Directorate), a hybrid organisation who, according to the evidence do not procure anything (#4 and #138) but provide guidance. The CPD was set up in 2002 and in their evidence said "we have been making procurement processes more efficient over a longer period than some other jurisdictions" (#18) - by other jurisdictions you can take it they include England, Scotland and Wales. Let's remember that Northern Ireland is quite small and is really about the size of one of the bigger counties in England, so perhaps when comparing progress towards collaborative procurement a better comparison may have been with the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (YPO) or Central Buying Consortium (CBC).

Nevertheless, the Committee could have taken the witnesses evidence at face value and felt reassured. No, the Committee wanted to know about progress on collaborative purchasing, the purpose of the evidence session. So they asked whether the CPD had a strategy which set out how greater collaboration was going to be achieved. The Committee's probing (#85-#122) drew out that the CPD have been working from an 'evolving strategy' since 2002 (#303-#306).

The Committee wanted to know why progress had been slow on collaboration and gained the following:
I am going to make a confession. The [NAO] report has thrown up that there is insufficient management information, and that we could do more and could be doing more to try to improve the amount of information we have and to try to push for standardisation (#65).
The Committee also gained admissions that CPD does not have either a P2P system (#172) nor an eMarketplace (#176). You may of course ask, why would an organisation which doesn't buy need a P2P system - the problem lies in the civil service and the NDPBs not having an integrated system. Equally, the purpose of the eMarketplace would be to store the catalogues/agreements which theoretically the collaboration can currently access. If I am correct, Scotland did put those foundations in place around ten years ago, even though "[CPD] have been making procurement processes more efficient over a longer period than some other jurisdictions" (#18)".

So the Committee established that the CPD, leads on public procurement in Northern Ireland but doesn't buy anything, considers itself to be a 'centre of expertise' with all its staff CIPS qualified, has been working on an 'evolving strategy' since its inception in 2002, and considers itself to have been ahead of its peers on making processes more efficient, yet doesn't have P2P or an eMarketplace. The Committee were also told of the assumption that to make collaborative purchasing work you need a P2P and eMarketplace - 10 years absence of progress argues that but it may be worth testing? That's quite an achievement, I think, well at least for the Committee's probing.

The Committee could also have asked the obvious question, "If you haven't been buying in over 10 years, what have you been doing, and, why would you expect Northern Ireland public sector buyers to trust you?".

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