Tag: councils

Tories will ‘unleash an army of armchair auditors’ to spend money better

Francis Maude - Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office

Francis Maude - Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office

Speaking at the Conservative party conference in Manchester yesterday, Francis Maude, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said the party would publish online, every item of government expenditure over £25,000 and all government tender documents for contracts worth over £10,000.

The Shadow Minister said that he thought that this would allow ‘an army of armchair auditors’ to crawl all over the governments accounts and not only help them to spend money better, but it would also help to rebuild trust.

This isn’t the first time that politicians have promised to make government procurement more transparent:

  • In 2003 the Better Regulation Task Force published ‘Government Supporter and Customer?’ Recomendation No. 1 was that the government should advertise ‘lower value contracts from across central government and include information on future contract opportunities.’ This set the scene for the Supply2.gov website, which due to a woeful lack of support from the Department of Business failed to reach its true potential and is due to be replaced by a new website implementing the Glover recommendations (see below).
  • In 2005 the Office of Government Commerce and the Small Business Service published ‘Smaller supplier…..better value?‘ which pointed out the challenges facing SME’s and how the government could help by publishing their future contracts online.
  • Also in 2005 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (when John Prescott was still a force to be reckoned with) published the ‘Small Business Friendly Concordat: Good Practice Guidance’ which yet again urged public sector organisations to use their websites to publish ‘details of forthcoming bidding opportunities.’
  • In 2006 the then Scottish Executive published a ‘Review of Public Procurement in Scotland’ authored by John McClelland, which recommended that ‘a single public sector “electronic portal” should be established. Suppliers must be able to access all essential information on opportunities to offer services and bid for contracts for the supply of commodities and services to the whole Public Sector in Scotland.’ This report resulted in the establishment of the rather effective Public Contracts Scotland website in 2008, which is run by the (some say, brilliant) team behind Tenders Direct.
  • Most recently in November 2008, the Glover report or ‘Accelerating the SME economic engine: through transparent, simple and strategic procurement,’ as it was more formally known, yet again, you guessed it, recommended that:
    • ‘By 2010, contract opportunities above £20,000 across the whole public sector should be advertised electronically with standard indicative contract value ranges, and accessible through a single, free, easy to search online portal.’

So at numerous times over the last six years, various politicians, government departments, quango’s and notable report authors have called for more transparency in the publication of government contracts.

The main barrier to progress has definitely been the lack of a clear lead by central government, either to publish its own contracts, or to establish an infrastructure and clear guidelines or regulations to ensure that other public bodies publish their contracts. The secondary barrier has been an unwillingness by staff in local authorities, NHS trusts, etc., to publish their contracts. This unwilling attitude stems from a variety of reasons such as a fear that they will be inundated with suppliers, that they want to keep contracts for local suppliers, that they ‘know’ who the best suppliers are anyway. Provided the procurement activity is approached professionally these fears are either groundless, well intentioned, but illegal and ineffective, or simply wrong. All of them get in the way of efficient procurement, or as the Right Honorable Member for Horsham put it yesterday we need to ‘spend money better.’

 The Department for Business and the Office of Government Commerce have been making some progress towards implementing the recommendations contained in the Glover Report. Unfortunately progress appears to have slowed as the General Election looms closer. At least it seems that the Tories have a similar, if not even greater, enthusiasm to open up public procurement, so that regardless of who wins power next year we should have a new era of open access to government contracts.

“Innovation in Procurement” the next new buzz phrase?

John Denham, the Communities Secretary who is responsible for local government, yesterday held a meeting with innovation and procurement experts from the private sector, academia and the public sector.

Mr. Denham started the meeting by saying that “Councils have proved they can be efficient….” well I think that’s news to most taxpayers, who would like to see a considerable improvement in the efficiency of their local authority. He went on to say that “given the economic climate their £42 billion buying power must be made to work harder,” in contrast to the earlier hollow praise I think that’s something we can all agree on.

Mr Denham set out three new approaches that his officials belive that councils should consider:

  1. think more carefully about how to use the buying power that big budgets bring – as big players in several markets or as early adopters of fledgling or innovative markets;
  2. think about how collective buying power can be used to secure greater efficiencies and get future benefits with that money. For example when Government agrees housing contracts they now require apprenticeships to be offered to as part of that deal; and
  3. change the culture of government contracting so it asks industry to find value for money solutions rather than tender for pre-determined products.

In my view the third of these approaches is probably the most powerful and, if widely adopted, would reap the greatest savings. As an example from our own business, we are frequently asked to bid for the provision of web-based electronic tendering systems. We’ve been providing these systems for almost 10 years and so we don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that we have learnt a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t work. Yet, when we get the invitation to tender it almost always includes a very detailed specification, not just of what the client wants to achieve, but also how we should do it. How does the client know? What experience have they got of running a website, or an electronic tendering system? We often hear talk of ‘outcome based specifications’ but I don’t think I have ever genuinely seen one.

The civil servants at the Communities Department included some examples of procuring for solutions, i.e. asking the suppliers how best to solve their problem, rather than telling them how they would like it to be solved. Two solutions that I think are worthy of a wider audience were as follows:

  • Each year, HM Prisons (HMPS) threw away about 60,000 foam mattresses and pillows, with the majority sent to landfill or disposed of as clinical waste. Instead of continuing with contracts to buy new mattresses they challenged suppliers to find a way to deliver zero waste, recycle all its mattresses and pillows not classified as hazardous, cut hazardous mattresses by 2 per cent per annum and bring costs down. After 30 tenders HMPS signed (in March) a contact which uses innovative new mattress covers that will reduce turnover and all but eliminate the need for clinical waste disposal. No mattresses will be sent to landfill, instead they will be recycled into useful products. Importantly, HMPS is projected to save in the region of £5m over the life of the contract, well ahead of the 2012 target
  • Durham County Council set up a food procurement project to cut the costs, improve the food and cut the carbon footprint of their distribution. Instead of pre-deciding how to meet those objectives, they asked suppliers how to do it. As a result, food has improved, costs have been cut, local businesses got involved leading to around 12 000 fewer deliveries – that’s 12 000 van journeys saved. Reducing carbon emissions in a local area is the fifth most popular LAA indicator. LB Lewisham calculated that 70 per cent of its carbon emissions were produced by its supply chain;
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