22 May 2003
The overhaul in procurement in the prison service will unlock doors for purchasers and help to address current safety issues, explains David Arminas
A major overhaul of procurement in the Prison Service is set to save money through improved purchasing. But just as importantly, it will make prisons more secure.
As our exclusive news story explains, regional purchasing teams will be set up to co-ordinate buying of goods and services for those prisons within a region.
Better buying practices is an obvious advantage of the regional set-up. But added value comes in helping purchasers to co-ordinate deliveries in and out of prisons.
Fewer suppliers will be delivering a wider range of goods and services and they will cut down on the number of times vehicles will pass through prison gates.
It should be an example for purchasers in other organisations, both public and private sector. Have they asked themselves what, in simple terms, is the business strategy of their organisation or company and how purchasing can be organised to follow it?
Changes to the Prison Service's purchasing have raised two main issues familiar to many public-sector organisations as they restructure. The first is decentralised versus centralised procurement such as regional and consortia set-ups.
The Prison Service must get the balance right. It must decide how far the service can centralise purchasing into regional groups to allow local purchasing to gain benefits before it loses sight of benefits for the service as a whole.
Purchasing in the higher-education sector is particularly wedded to strong regional consortia. Universities compete with each other for students, research money and business donations. They are organisations with strong individualism and traditionally have close links with their communities, including other universities in their area.
They jealously guard their independence, although that is not to say that national contracts don't exist. It was three years ago that higher education's central procurement advisory body, the Joint Procurement Policy and Strategy Group (JPPSG), mooted greater adherence to national contracts. But this met fierce criticism from consortia heads.
About three years ago, the NHS had a major shake-up of procurement. It went down the path of centralised procurement when it created the Purchasing and Supply Agency (Pasa). The agency has undoubtedly brought benefits for hospitals and trusts through national contracts for many goods and services.
But Pasa found it needed to modify its setup. A year ago it began a decentralisation process with the creation of a middle tier of purchasing to bridge the gap between national Pasa and local, individual trust-level purchasing. The mechanisms for this are inter-trust collaborative groups known as "supply management confederations".
What works for the NHS and the education sector will not necessarily work for the Prison Service. But in keeping with "best practice", their experiences should be examined thoroughly by any body embarking on a major purchasing reorganisation.
The second issue is about having the right people to manage change in the move. This will be just as tricky as getting the balance right between centralised and decentralised procurement.
While John Cavell, head of procurement at the Prison Service, admits it is late in tackling both these issues, there is a good reason. He took on the new purchasing position in 2001 when procurement in the service hardly registered as a business function. As such, no one had overall responsibility for seeing it met the Prison Service's strategy.
The Prison Service has not been a hotbed of purchasing expertise and Cavell knows he has his work cut out for him in attracting high-calibre people.
But there are signs that the purchasing in the service is getting serious consideration as a good career move. A recent advertisement for senior-level purchasers had more than 600 inquiries and 250 applications.