30 March 2006 | Anusha Bradley
In a stinging attack on public-sector purchasing, the departing head of the UK's largest local authority buying consortium said "territorial infighting" was hampering efforts to make savings.
Dave Wheller, head of procurement at Essex County Council and chairman of the Central Buying Consortium (CBC), which represents 17 councils in England, was addressing delegates at the CBC's annual conference.
He said: "The past two years as chairman have been extremely challenging. With procurement at the top of the agenda, many parts of the public and private sector have taken an interest in local government procurement.
"Much of this activity has led to duplication of effort, reinventing wheels and territorial infighting. All of this has led to a significant waste of time, effort and resources."
Wheller, who steps down in May, added: "We have a nonsense of competition between public-sector procurement organisations where the NHS, OGC [Office of Government Commerce], and OGCbuying.solutions, established consortia and new partnerships seek to gain market share in areas of procurement where there are already established relationships and best-value deals available."
He urged the public sector to join up and ensure those with expertise were doing deals on behalf of the entire sector.
"You have to work with the market and not divide potential gains. There are very important and serious opportunities that are being lost," he said.
Sir Peter Gershon, the architect of the efficiency savings drive, supported Wheller's view.
He told delegates: "Collaboration is not in the DNA of the public sector, which is used to a high level of autonomy.
"The government does not have any plans to make it mandatory. To get greater collaboration it therefore must be voluntary."
He said there needed to be "increased pressure" on organisations to justify why they were not collaborating. If they resist, he said, they must be able to prove they can get better deals on their own.
Gershon also encouraged buyers to share information that would help them to ensure they were getting the best deals.
He also said they needed to better promote their skills in order to achieve efficiency savings beyond 2008.
Gershon said "too much" procurement in the public sector was done by inexperienced staff and added that the profession needed to improve its status within government.
"I still think the procurement function reports at too low a level, compared with the private sector. I would hope to see, in the next five to 10 years, the head of procurement having huge influence and a direct report to the chief executive."
That is the true test of how procurement is rated, he said.