Summer reflections

It has been another challenging six months for those working in the public sector, as it has in other sectors too, but the accumulative effect of over ten years of austerity is taking its toll.

Local authorities are reporting that they cannot guarantee to meet their statutory duties and are struggling to respond to increases in demand for adult social care and children’s services as other important services are inadequately funded. The NHS is suffering real cuts, as are schools. There is almost no part of the public sector that is not under the financial cosh. There is little prospect of relief, especially given the potential impact of any form of Brexit which is very likely to lead to deeper austerity. A change of national government could stem the decline into a programme of further cuts but there is no general election in sight and even a radical government committed to ending austerity could and probably would not restore all the cuts of the last nine years.

Some politicians, some commentators and some consultants still repeat the now boring and disingenuous mantras of “doing more for less”, “there is much scope to eliminate inefficiency” and “innovate to save money and improve services”.

I expect that there are very many excellent and dedicated public servants who wish that their service could have had a funding increase for every time they have heard these fanciful statements. Of course, there is some truth in all of them but their application will not meet the funding needs of critical public services, nowhere near!

One area of public service which continues to be under enormous pressure is public procurement. Expert professionals are being put under continuous pressure to save money whilst contracting for higher quality goods and services. Again, whilst there may be some opportunities in a few cases to secure this wonderful goal, they will be rare, very rare.

I think that it is time for public procurement professionals across the public sector to “speak truth to power” and call out the more nonsensical demands being placed on them. In doing this they can demonstrate their professional and strategic value to the public sector. Politicians and senior executives should be made aware of some home truths and made to face up to reality – of course many politicians and senior executives understand the reality but too many seemingly either do not or choose to pretend that they don’t.

Over the next few weeks many public sector procurement officials will, hopefully, be having some holiday and time away from the office and the pressure of the day job. I wish them well and hope that they can get some good downtime and relaxation. However, if they are anything like me they will from time to time be thinking about the job and their return to the office.

There are four specific issues which they may wish to reflect on:

how they can persuade their colleagues and the politicians, when this is necessary for them to understand the ‘trade off’ between price and quality when services and goods are procured from third parties, that public service outsourcing often

o   fails to lead to service improvement

o   does not transfer risk (with the ultimate risk always residing with the public sector)

o   diminishes public transparency and accountability

o   increases overall costs to the public sector when the economic and transferred costs to other public budgets are considered

the potential benefits of insourcing existing outsourced serviceshow the external public spend of a public body, especially local authority expenditure, can be used to promote wider public policy objectives and community wealth-building, supporting local VCSE and SME providershow relational partnerships with the voluntary and community sector can be much more effective than adversarial competitive tendering based contracting

I am confident that many local authority leaders and senior executives across the public sector would welcome strategic thoughts and practical advice on these four issues – and, of course, on many other issues too.

Summer holidays are a time to reflect and I urge public procurement officials to find some time to consider these and other issues and then come back to work ready to champion realism and an agenda which is orientated to maximising public benefit ahead of ideology or lazy default behaviours.

As I said earlier in this piece, the pressure of underfunding and the prospects of further austerity will sadly be there after the holidays and probably for some long time to come. Therefore, rather than being complicit with the notion that this can all be easily managed away, let the public procurement profession lift the agenda to a new plane.

Have a good holiday!