I think my mission in life for the year ahead ought to be to destroy public sector procurement as it now functions in the UK.
The job of buying on behalf of government? I have no idea if there’s a grand, centrally-held mission statement somewhere in Whitehall, or in town halls across the nation. But were I to have a go at drafting it at my desk early on Saturday morning before my first coffee of the day, it’d read something like:
Professionally sourcing solutions from the market that enable the most effective and most efficient delivery of public services to those who depend on them.
As a taxpayer – both personally and through our company – I’d also hope it would be about ensuring value for money: not necessarily the cheapest (for cheap is rarely cheerful), but the option that delivers the best overall use of scarce public funds. That has to be a holistic view – not just the costs billed by the eventual supplier, but factoring in the time and cost of those on the government side of the procurement and delivery too.
To give just a few illustrations of how the inept cadre of so-called procurement ‘professionals’ operate right now in the UK public sector from deals we’ve worked on in 2014 to date:
- Numerous local councils across the country needing to replace a supplier that’s quitting the market, each conducting entirely separate procurement exercises in parallel; each developing their own (typically very second-rate) ITT with different specs and questions about what is fundamentally a very simple commodity purchase.
- A major government department issuing 300 pages of questions for a contract worth under £1m – and for which there are already robust and toughly-negotiated framework agreements in place that they could have used.
- Documents issued to bidders in late December, with a response date in early January, with the added fun that clarification questions couldn’t be answered until a couple of days before proposals were due in “because everyone’s on holiday”.
- A project that has huge implications on a local community, being awarded purely on the basis of the short written proposal that bidders are required to submit, with no meetings whatsoever between the agency concerned and potential suppliers to discuss their proposed approaches.
- Laughable word-count limits on answers in eTendering systems. Because, you know, it’s obviously possible for a supplier to explain in full how a highly sensitive service protecting the most vulnerable people in our society can be delivered from a technical perspective within the 250 word box you’ve provided – especially when the question you’ve posed is itself three pages long and itself contains numerous contradictions and errors.
- Bids on which several suppliers score “100% for quality”. Utter nonsense: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a truly perfect proposal, not least when the buying teams aren’t that clear or realistic about what’s needed for success and their RFPs are so badly-written. But, hey, if we’re not bright enough to differentiate between potential solutions, let’s lazily score them all high and just argue about price.
- An eProcurement system that offers two settings: the standard view, and an alternative view for the visually-impaired. Praiseworthy, save for the fact that the way of making the ITT easier to respond to for the visually-impaired is simply to leave the question numbers on the screen but delete all of the questions.
Duplicating and wasting effort. Running ridiculously complex processes that merely seem to protect or generate jobs for civil servants. Treating the supply market with contempt. And, as a result, no doubt resulting in poorer public services for those who depend on them, and wasting taxpayers’ money. Who’s in control of this stuff? And is it any wonder that if things are done so very badly on smaller and medium-sized projects, we hear tell of so many disasters on major procurement exercises?
Actually, I’m not sure I blame the individuals: when ineptitude is so widespread, it has to be the system to blame – the very role of the purchasing function; the processes it follows; the calibre of staff recruited (partly tied into the salaries and grades for the job); the training offered; the way feedback from the market is handled.
Of course, it’s easy to pick on isolated examples of poor practice – and this post is designed to be provocative: something of a Modest Proposal. There are, of course, many incredibly diligent, top-class procurement folks working in the public sector. But life for them must be very lonely.
Any thoughts? Or am I standing on this soapbox alone?