Friday, 14 March 2014

Hodge should demand even deeper transparency on public procurement decision making

I am a great admirer of Margaret Hodge's forensic examination of public procurement - she seems to have honed the skill of extracting the information others don't seem able to. So I read with interest today's the report in the Guardian which claims she has suggested the DWP may be on the verge of meltdown major contracts and has called for greater transparency.

The article is definitely worth a read, particularly if you are a public sector procurement practitioner who "simply have to up their game and get a grip" - a sentiment which Francis Maude seemed to agree with in his parallel interview on Radio 4's Today programme (start to listen around 2:21).

Hodge appears to be calling for greater transparency on contract management, particularly with major contracts. Personally I think that falls short of what is needed. I think, for major contracts, we should see greater transparency on the pre-award decision making and options appraisal. Let me explain.

A few years ago I acted as an expert peer reviewer for Defra's evidence based research on Sustainable Production and Consumption (aka sustainable procurement). It was a fascinating experience. There were three strands on which Defra commissioned research: Policy priorities for sustainable procurement, cost/benefit analysis on sustainable procurement, and downstream impact of sustainable procurement. The research reports were then passed to the 'peer reviewers' for their critique. The objective being that Defra had improved the robustness of its decision making. To cap it all, the research reports were then published on Defra's website alongside the peer review reports. That's remarkable transparency.

Well, around about the same general time I was also asked by the Cabinet Office to provide an opinion on the DWP's proposed approach to one of the contracts currently being debated. I gave my opinion in by email to the Cabinet Office official - unfortunately they struggled in conveying my arguments and asked if I would share them face-to-face. At the time I had just undergone major surgery and couldn't travel, so the meeting never took place. My advice was not followed and I remain unaware why. Yet, in a remarkable twist of fate Francis Maude appeared to be articulating some of the arguments I had previously put forward, in his Today interview.

You may wonder where I am going with this. Well quite simply, if you want to improve the robustness of major contracts in the public sector it is insufficient to call for transparency on contract management - that's shutting the door after stable has burnt down. You need to progress much further in the upstream procurement decision making and have transparency on the various procurement approach options considered and the associated options appraisal. Indeed, why not go further, making use of social media, consult on the options and even incentivise contributions by rewarding those who have led to the avoidance of costly failures. Am I being ridiculous? Not if you want to avoid high profile procurement disasters and want to know who is personally accountable for them.

PS 22 March 2014: In a remarkable piece of transparent procurement decision making Leeds have published their decision regarding the Tour de France event. Whether this proves to be a good thing remains to be seen - it would have been interesting if they had used social media to ask "What would you do?"

No comments:

Post a Comment