20 Aug 2012 Public sector procurement – moving on from the new normal
The purpose of public service is to serve the public. You may consider that a crude tautology and you could be right, yet it is something that I think is worth repeating. Frequently.
In my 27+ years working in central government, it was something I thought was too often forgotten. For a teacher or a social worker or a nurse or a squaddie, the notion of service is not a novelty. Where I most frequently observed the “serving the public” ideal being obscured was in the “professional” support functions.
My simple view is that the primary task of any public servant who is not in a front line role is to support those who are. None of the professional “back-room” roles in HR, Legal, Finance, IT and Procurement are done for their own sake.
The primary role of procurement in the public sector is to source goods and services which support effective delivery of public service or to commission the delivery of services to the public. It is more than the eternal search for savings and “value for money” .
A key change in recent years in central government procurement in the UK has been the push for a higher skill level, usually in the form of qualifications awarded by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS). For the avoidance of any doubt, I am not gainsaying the benefits of increasing skill levels or the manifest merits of CIPS but there does seem to be a set of unintended consequences which have emerged, particularly in central government.
Increasingly I have observed that buyers are assessed against their professional skills in managing a procurement process to a conclusion which is not vulnerable to legal challenge. Whether the outcome of the process actually supports or delivers better public service is not the key determinant. The European procurement rules don’t help, at least on their usual interpretation. This is unfortunate. It reminds me of projects which have been perfectly managed in terms of execution of a formal methodology but have not delivered a working outcome on time or on budget.
Secondly, the role of the buyer has tacitly been promoted above the roles of others in the process and, crucially, there is frequently a disconnect between the buyer and the subsequent management of suppliers and contracts. Buyers generally do not have a particularly great knowledge of transactional purchasing or AP functions. Hence the notion of “delivery” is assessed in sharply circumscribed terms.
Recently I wrote about where our (Elcom) customers are looking to develop (here). I am enthused by this because their guiding principles are not spend management or purchase order discipline for their own sakes. They already have those and what were once “savings” and “benefits” are now being baselined as the new normal.
The emerging question for those customers is how to use procurement – and procurement technology – to support delivery of better outcomes for the public. Intriguingly, those customers are not in central government.
Ian Burdon can be found on twitter @IanBurdon