Less ‘just in time’, more ‘just in case’: How government can be a better customer when the next crisis hits

There have been some government procurement successes during Covid-19, but there are also many lessons to be learned, says Aidan Shilson-Thomas, a senior researcher at the think-tank Reform
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By Aidan Shilson-Thomas

16 Dec 2020

The pandemic has been a trial by fire for public procurement – and if trials by fire had juries, then the jury would be out. Depending on who you talk to, government has either spent wisely to get hospitals and vaccines delivered in record time, or squandered public money on botched procurements with dodgy companies.  

Both of these verdicts would be a stretch, and – as ever – the truth is more complicated. Take PPE, for example: after a slow start, the fact the government was able to secure massive quantities of PPE in an overheated global market is a procurement feat in itself. Items like gloves can’t be manufactured in the UK, so there would always be a reliance on international supply. But at the same time much of this arrived far too late, causing crippling shortages for frontline care, and government paid way over the odds for it – 16 times the average cost of an EU contract.  

Looking back over the last nine months, however, there is much to celebrate about how procurements have run in the pandemic. The Cabinet Office’s ventilator challenge is an example of success, as was the construction of the Nightingale hospitals, both of which show what can be achieved when government and industry work towards a shared goal.  

Yet while recognising what has gone well, we cannot ignore the areas where procurement fell short of what was needed and expected, both in terms of steps taken to safeguard public monies, and goods that were not up to scratch. Some issues were not anticipated – this is a problem in its own right – but others were known to exist and not addressed in time. In both senses, this reflects badly on government.  

Now is the time to take stock of these issues, and for government to look closely at how public procurement dealt with the pressures of the pandemic. To be a better customer in the next crisis, there are four areas that need to be improved on.  

First, next time, government must strike a better balance between procuring just-in-time and just-in-case. At its core, the PPE shortage was a failure of planning: relying on last-minute procurements is not going to work in a global scramble for the same things at the same time. More exercises to stress test government supply chains ahead of time should be used in the future.

Second, government needs to get better at assessing large volumes of could-be suppliers at speed. This would help avoid the overreliance on suppliers closely tied to politicians and government officials. Reform found that for non-fast lane offers, up to 70 civil servants were reviewing 1500-2000 prospective suppliers a day. Smarter technologies that filter out unsuitable applicants and triage offers to the right departments could speed up processing and put suppliers with the most promise at the top of the pack.    

Third, government is now under fire for not being forthcoming about how public monies are spent, with gaps and long delays in contract reporting. As Reform has long argued, poor transparency undermines accountability for spending and the public’s trust – so will government Please Procure Responsibly?   

And finally, government must ensure that robust checks and safeguards are in place when contracts are being awarded without competition for a long period of time. A pandemic certainly passes the ‘extreme urgency’ threshold for direct awards, but the COVID response has come a long way since March. At this stage in the pandemic, awards without competition look a lot less justifiable.  

Critics of public-private partnerships will seize on the mistakes of the past nine months and overlook how indispensable they have been. This is a mistake, but the evidence of shortcomings is clear. The pandemic has shown us a crisis can strike at any time; lessons need to be learned now – a future rerun of errors would be indefensible.

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