27 February 2003
Stung into action by a critical report, Haringey council built a procurement unit from nothing in just a year and is now garnering the praise. David Arminas reports
Purchasers at the London Borough of Haringey are basking in the glory of an excellent report from the Audit Commission, the local government watchdog.
They have gone from zero to hero in just a year and look set to lead the way as far as the beleaguered borough's corporate performance goes. The council was recently designated as being "overall weak" in a separate report, also by the commission.
Its procurement department, set up only a year ago after the commission's report, has shown itself to be part of the solution to a local government's service delivery problems and targets.
Few other boroughs deserve such a dedicated procurement department as Haringey, the thirteenth most deprived borough in England according to government statistics. It has one of the highest crime rates in London and the 7 per cent unemployment rate is nearly twice the capital's average.
It is especially heartening, therefore, to see that Haringey's improving education delivery was highlighted by the commission. Better schools for the borough's children is an aim that every purchasing professional will enthusiastically support.
So Haringey is offered congratulations from the team at SM for its lightning-quick turnaround, as it will no doubt be offered by many others in purchasing. But the challenge now faced by the council's procurement department is how to maintain the momentum that has raised its profile.
As Martin Parker, the Audit Commission's head of performance for London boroughs, told SM, many councils have plans and policies, but it's another question whether they can deliver them.
Having the right people to push forward a policy is no less important in the public sector as it is in private sector. This is also bound up with the need to have the right organisational culture: one that allows a less adversarial approach to managing contracts.
Sally Brooks, the council's head of procurement, acknowledges that some people issues persist. Old buying habits sometimes remain where people look for ways around contracts and policies. In general, procurement in local government has suffered from a skills shortage - a fact noted by Sir Ian Byatt's report in 2001.Stakeholder buy-in
Another major issue is getting stakeholder buy-in where people in other departments understand that procurement can help them attain their goals. This means winning over senior management. But it is equally importantly to get lower management on board.
The commission found this had happened at Haringey. The private sector knows well enough how hard this is to achieve. It requires getting to know your customers, both internally and externally, and what their goals are. Good communication skills are also essentialto get stakeholder buy-in.
Private-sector purchasers understand that it is a constant struggle to maintain this customer focus while trying to get other things, such as getting e-procurement, up and running. In this respect, the commission says Haringey should be careful as it introduces a new SAP ordering and payment system.
Having the right people is one thing, but this also raises the issue of ensuring that performance levels are maintained. Performance management frameworks are needed that measure key performance indicators. This includes ensuring there is accountability for projects and goals.
The commission makes the point that Haringey needs to keep this in mind. But Sally Brooks is optimistic. Her unit is new, with an injection of purchasers from outside Haringey, as well as bringing in people from other business units who are used to handling major contracts.
Purchasers in the public as well as the private sector should conclude that Haringey's experience is an example worth studying if they are serious about their procurement department becoming part of the answer to delivering customer goals.
The commission's report proves that procurement in local government can be cutting edge. It can only be hoped that more positive commission reports will lead to councils competing head-on with the private sector for the best and brightest purchasers.
It is early days and the Audit Commission could be handing out more poor reports to other council purchasing departments. But Haringey has shown the visits can be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem and the starting point for big improvements.