2018 will be another challenging year for the public sector. Austerity, cuts to funding, staffing and services will continue unless there is either a change of government in Westminster or the current government very surprisingly undergoes a Damascene conversion. Demand for services, especially social care, will continue to grow. There will be ridiculous calls for the public sector “to do more for less” even though most services are well beyond stretching point.
The pressure will be on procurement officials across the public sector to produce miracles – that is to gain more higher quality services and goods for less expenditure time and time again. Even the most competent and successful procurement teams will soon reach the limits – and most will have moved past the limits – of such activity and outcomes. They will also be expected to renegotiate existing contracts for goods and services, and even PFI projects, to improve ‘value for money’ and reduce the financial burden on the public sector. And those procurement professionals employed by the more progressive public sector bodies will be required to secure social value and wider public policy goals through their contracts.
It is not going to be an easy year for public procurement officials who have both integrity and a strong public service ethos – and I have no reason to believe that is not almost every procurement official.
It will be essential for public procurement officials to speak up when they are being asked to do the impossible and to challenge executive colleagues and even politicians who are making unrealistic demands. I believe that that in addition to challenging false and unrealistic demands, professional officials should be offering advice to their colleagues and their politicians on how procurement can make a positive strategic contribution to the public sector and public services even in these challenging times.
First: challenge unrealistic demands and expectations wherever they may come from; and explain what the consequences would be if these were to be pursued.
Second: ensure that every procurement or potential procurement decision is comprehensively risk assessed and that decision makers are aware of these risks. This means being involved in policy development, commissioning and service design rather than only being the recipients of instructions to procure even when such procurement would be ludicrous, damaging or impossible.
Third: when it comes to public services, if there is pressure to outsource, press decision makers – executive and political – to undertake an informed ‘make or buy decision’ which takes into account risk, holistic cost benefit analysis including social, economic and environmental impact on the local community and wider economy, the public body’s overall values and policy agenda, and a comprehensive assessment of the supply market and suppliers. Be ready to advocate ‘in-house’ provision even if this means less direct work for the procurement team.
And adopt similar approaches for the procurement of goods, which take into account wider social, economic, environmental and place considerations.
Fourth: share intelligence and data about suppliers’ performance, values and behaviours across the public sector so that local decisions can be well informed.
Fifth: advocate partnership approaches with the social sector, charities and the voluntary and community sector so that unnecessary and costly competitive processes can be avoided, and grants awarded instead of over engineered contracts.
Sixth: work closely, especially in local government, with other local public sector bodies to coordinate procurements and maximise market advantage, and to ensure that public procurement is integrated with economic and social development programmes, skills, training and apprenticeship policies, as well as other place-based objectives and associated programmes
A public procurement profession that can act in this way, offer commercial and wider policy advice and demonstrate its intrinsic value will be recognised by public sector leaders and politicians and hopefully invested in rather than be the subject of head count cuts. More importantly, it will be recognised as playing a critical strategic role with the right to be around the table when decisions are made – and not simply procurement and contracting decisions.
I wish the public procurement profession all the best for 2018, and I implore the profession to make its mark and not be silently complicit when the public weal is at risk.