Substitutability: Maybe government is less unique than it imagines

Is it in our best interests to assume our needs are unique, or should government procurement professionals look to ‘best fit’ substitutes? New observations from Proxima’s Guy Strafford, EVP

By Proxima

06 Jul 2020

You think you are unique; it is a common trait. It’s a nice thought, but we are often overstating the case and deluding ourselves.

The same is true of government procurement, and overstating its claim to individuality is to the detriment of the speed and quality of policy realisation.

You look in the mirror and see yourself as one of a kind.  In your mind, they made the mould for you, and broke it after you were made!

Except that distinctiveness is often not quite how the rest of the world sees us.  Do you remember how many times you have walked past someone in the street and nearly said hello to a passer-by that looks almost exactly like a friend?  You may even have said hello and then received a bemused or blank response.  You may also have had new acquaintances who say how much you look like someone else they know.

It is it not just our looks that can be similar.  How many times have you met someone new and considered how much their personality reminds you of another friend?  Their mannerisms and voice may seem distinctly familiar.   In fact, a small number of questions being answered via personality tools such as Insights360, can lead to a remarkably accurate assessment of your personality, which predicts how you will behave.  All your supposedly unique combinations of experiences and genetic mix has led to a personality whose characteristics are much less unusual than you may independently have concluded. 

Turning this lens onto yourself means your ego having to confront an uncomfortable truth: that you are not as different as you imagine you are.

Our tendency to believe we are unique means we can sometimes over-estimate the extent to which the specific circumstances we face are also unique, and therefore decide they need a unique solution. 

Having watched procurement decision-making in both the private and public sector at the highest level, I believe that there is a more pronounced tendency in the public sector to ignore the likelihood that what an, e.g. government department is trying to do is similar to something that has already been done before.

The same thought process – substitutability – extends directly to procurement.  There is a tendency to think that the government needs its own welfare platform or its own warships based on a template developed in the UK. Errr no….

A better jumping off point might be to start by thinking, ‘what is the closest similar product or service which already exists, and how do I minimise the tweaks required to get this to be fit for purpose?’.  For example, the private sector has learnt to its cost that it is often better to implement plain vanilla SAP (a big software tool used for finance, HR et al.) that costs millions of pounds, rather than try to alter it to cover idiosyncratic requirements which also delays the tool actually being launched, and costs many, many millions more

'What is the closest substitute?' should be the mantra of every procurement professional and civil servant when faced with developing a policy solution which initially appears to be unique. 


Assuming someone has already done it before, or something similar, and therefore enabling government to ride on those coat tails is a great starting point.  This someone could be another government, another regional government/state/local council or it could be a company.   

One of the consequences – I speculate – is that adopting such an approach will impact the supply market open to government.  At present, there are many companies that overwhelmingly focus on and disproportionately service the UK public sector.  Focusing on where others have done it before will put a premium on new companies servicing multiple arenas.  It will open up the supply market to a broader range of suppliers and make it more difficult for, and perhaps even break, the stranglehold of businesses specialising in servicing just UK government.

It might make it easier to harness the innovation that Michael Gove spoke of in his Ditchley Annual Lecture.

From a procurement perspective, the issue is to then make sure that the supply market awareness and procurement skills are available to be used at the start of the policy development, to bring the best of existing external solutions into the policy thinking. This will dramatically improve 'implementability' because the amount of wheel reinvention or creation will plummet.  In and of itself, this recruitment and knowledge management is a challenge, but it is one that the private sector, which with much less resource available to it, has been able to solve.

The elements of government procurement that are genuinely unique are much fewer than is articulated because we over-estimate the elements that have to be different and lack awareness of where it has been done before.  Instead, we should look at the nearest substitute and adopt as many procurement elements as possible from that substitute.  This will accelerate implementation and reduce the risks attached to being the guinea pig.

Read the most recent articles written by Proxima - Sustainable procurement: an opportunity presented by COVID-19


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