Sunday, 31 May 2015

Are agencies the baddies of NHS procurement

My ears pricked up this morning when I heard the NHS CX, Simon Stevens, explain to Andrew Marr that they were "going to clamp down on some of the staffing agencies ripping off the NHS".  Is this some sort of role reversal taking place - the Conservatives are in power but the market are the baddies!

In the past many public sector organisations believed that their traditional approach of having a 'bank' which they managed and could call on was flawed - outsourcing was the new best practice. Exploring the option of outsourcing did make sense but in parallel there needed to be a proactive approach to managing both the agencies and the internal demand. I observed agencies providing an easier option than the hurdles of sourcing internally through HR. Justifying the need for 'temps' was relaxed and while staff previously covered for short-term absences, that became the exception. The agencies made it easy to just pick up the phone and have a temp sitting at a desk two hours later. Then, months later, like a version of Parkinson's Law, the temp had become indispensable and the temp had become a necessity.

To me what went wrong was that public sector bodies relaxed their control mechanisms - they devolved control. Worse they gave it away. The agencies weren't the baddies, they were 'partners'. But as the clients raised their expectations of demand there was a parallel need to manage risks through prices by the agencies.

Now "some" of the agencies are perceived to be "ripping off the NHS". What happened to the 'intelligent client'? What happened to the belief in competition? What happened to managing contract prices?

Those who believe the market is ripping the NHS off would do well to review the robustness of their demand management. Agencies provide a solution which the public sector has come to rely on. Power has perhaps shifted to the market as opposed to the client. Before assuming the NHS is being ripped off why not consider a ,make/buy options appraisal. Before clamping down they better have a risk management strategy which addresses how they will respond if some of the critical providers just  say "okay, we'll not bid anymore!"

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