Public sector procurement is rarely far from the headlines. The Government spends around £300bn on procurement, and how it uses this money rightly provokes keen interest from the media and parliamentarians. However, the demands of modern Government mean that Whitehall cannot deliver good public services alone. It needs the support and expertise of the private sector.
This is not just born out of necessity. Innovative private sector firms can provide skills, expertise and talent that do not always exist inside government departments. This can have a positive effect on the delivery of good public services.
At this year’s Civil Service Live, James Bowler, Permanent Secretary to HM Treasury, brought together procurement experts from across Whitehall at a roundtable sponsored by Serco to discuss the challenges and opportunities that government procurement experts are facing.
How do we go out to tender on big contracts in a fast-changing world? How should private sector suppliers deliver for public sector customers? What procurement skills do policy professionals need to have in an area that is too often seen as ‘“someone else's responsibility”
The session opened with participants setting out the importance of public sector procurement. They asked how we ensure that more SMEs get access to contracts, how we ensure contracts are awarded to companies spread across the UK and how we overcome bureaucracy to deliver good public services.
They noted that the Procurement Bill currently progressing through Parliament seeks to answer many of these questions. One participant stated they are very excited by the Bill and suggested that it will make it far easier for contracting authorities and suppliers to do business together.
Another asked how private sector partners can be more proactive in working with contracting authorities without adding to the complexities of the system. They noted that currently, private providers already have to negotiate their way around many contracting authorities, which is not always easy. Another participant agreed with the point and said they are keen for the system to be speeded up to deliver more value for money.
One participant added that some of the changes in the Bill present risks, but on balance, they will give the Government more freedom to negotiate with the private sector, which will be good for the taxpayer in the long run. However, they added that these changes will take two to three years to have any impact because the existing framework will remain in force for the foreseeable future.
Another participant questioned how much consultation policy experts working on the Bill are doing with the industry. They said that, although working closely on the issue, they were not aware of the Bill currently going through Parliament.
Moving on from the discussion of the Bill, one participant suggested that public sector procurement professionals could be clearer about what they want from external suppliers at the outset. They also noted that excess caution among procurement professionals can lead to delays in delivery, adding that misunderstandings of ‘transparency’ make officials very reluctant to take risks. They asked whether other participants have any reflections on this.
Another participant noted a big fear of failure among procurement professionals. They then added that this isn’t always conducive to good government because we learn from failure, and the ability to test, fail and learn quickly is important.
Another reflected that the Bill does offer more opportunity to take risks but then added that there is a danger that we stifle this opportunity. They suggested that to avoid this, civil servants need to look at what they can do differently to deliver better outcomes.
Another suggested that one way to instil more innovation into the system would be to establish ‘innovation pots’ for experimentation in procurement.
Turning to the question of how the Government operates procurement more broadly, one participant noted that departments too often double up on procuring the same or similar services. They added that Whitehall should take a more effective cross-government approach to deliver better savings and efficiencies for the taxpayer.
In response to her point, someone noted that there is often a disconnect within departments, too, with policy officials often making decisions with ministers but leaving procurement officials to manage the actual process.
They ended by summing up three core takeaways from the session: First, lots of things are changing in public sector procurement, but more work needs to be done to ensure everyone is aware of these changes; second, while transparency is welcome, we need to mitigate the negative side effects of it such as stifling innovation; third more collaboration across Government is needed.