West Coast Main Line fiasco highlights strength of the procurement process
A high profile public procurement exercises in the UK has become a very public embarrassment for the British government as the award of the franchise for one of the country’s busiest rail lines has been withdrawn following complaints from one of the unsuccessful bidders. This is going to lead to calls for public procurement processes to be examined and it will do nothing for the reputation of procurement professionals in the public sector who regularly come under fire from a press who will seek to conclude that the public procurement process needs to be overhauled.
But that’s exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. Indeed, I think that the whole debacle shows the strength of the procurement process – not its weakness.
In this case, the process went wrong – badly wrong. It seems that projections to take into account inflation and changes in passenger numbers were not properly calculated and that the business risks not assessed properly. Richard Branson was right to cry foul. But it is wrong to blame the procurement process per se. It was, or at least appears to be at this stage, the procurement people that were to blame.
The public sector procurement process may not be perfect but it is robust, it is fair and most important of all, it is transparent. If it was not for the transparency of the process, Richard Branson wouldn’t have been able to point out the error that gave the franchise to FirstGroup. This is a really important safeguard in the procurement process that kicked in and prevented a potentially expensive mistake. This whole shambles may be an embarrassment for the government and it may be an embarrassment for the Department of Transport but it highlights one of the key strengths of the public procurement process – it’s openness. Let’s recognize that.