04 October 2001 | Robin Parker
More than half of local authorities have faced significant difficulties improving competition and procurement practices to meet the demands of best-value reviews in the past year.
Procurement was the subject of nearly 30 per cent of the Audit Commission's reviews. According to the commission's second annual best-value report, about a quarter of councils said the reviews had not helped them to improve procurement and competition practices.
Three-quarters reported difficulties in coping with the demands of the reviews. Many said that setting up systems and strategies to meet these demands forced major changes to the way they work.
Dave Wheller, chairman of the Society of Purchasing Officers in Local Government, said purchasers should focus on long-term goals or risk never forming effective strategies.
"Procurement officers are caught in a 'catch-22' situation because councils are in a transitional phase in their approach to purchasing after Sir Ian Byatt's recent report," he said. "There is a raised awareness of procurement now and councils are increasingly getting procurement officers involved in more strategic processes.
"But purchasing's resources are being stretched and procurement professionals are torn between using their skills tosupport services and carry out best-value reviews simultaneously. Best value loses out to customers' immediate concerns."
Adrian Hobson, a cabinet member of Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council, said that many councils are simply not ready yet to think strategically about procurement.
"To get procurement centre stage, it must be recognised as central by senior elected council members," he said. "Forming strategies presupposes we have already overcome issues of recognition and acceptance."
In the past year, the commission has deemed two-thirds of services "poor" or "fair", and more than a third "unlikely to improve". The commission was particularly concerned that more than 70 per cent of councils were "playing safe" in their reviews because they focused on a single department or function.
Terry Harrison, purchasing manager at Salford Council, said the difficulty in selecting areas for a review lay in continuing ongoing strategies while being inspected.
"We'd just implemented our first e-procurement system, but the best-value inspectors had problems with the fact that we had difficulties in introducing a huge cultural change," he said.
A quarter of councils demanded less inspection or more flexible guidance. In a forthcoming white paper, the commission will outline measures to address such concerns.