Is self-assessment objective?

7 April 2009

08 April 2009

The OGC programme of capability assessments is itself undergoing a major review. Martha McKenzie-Minifie asks what it will mean for public buying

When the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) published the last procurement capability reviews from the first wave this month, few outside the organisation knew it would be the end of an era. For the past 18 months, the independent office of the Treasury had put 16 government departments' buying under the microscope. It questioned staff, suppliers and partners, assigning scores and pledging to return in two years' time to do it all again.

But it has emerged that they won't do it all again - instead, the departments are likely to be asked to monitor their purchasing prowess themselves.

The move to a self-evaluation approach - which an internal OGC memo says stems from a directive of the Civil Service Steering Board after it had considered the number of capability reviews under way - was a surprise to many in the public sector.

Commercial directors who spoke to SM had little clue the change was coming, or of senior civil servants' apparent dissatisfaction with the arrangements.

While several say it's too soon to speak publicly about what is seen as a politically sensitive issue, they are interested in - and still uncertain about the specifics of - what will happen next. Senior public sector buyers are divided on the merits - or otherwise - of the OGC's procurement capability review process. Some question the perceived interests of certain figures who were selected for the high-level review teams.

But with self-assessment looming on the horizon, they agree on two things: implementing recommendations from the first wave must be a priority, and a firm framework to guide the self-evaluation process will be crucial.

The two measures are important, in the words of one anonymous professional leader, as self-review carries a danger that departments will "do what they want or do nothing".

Revenue and Customs commercial director, David Thomas, says it is too early to know the specifics of the changes or why they were being proposed.

He says commercial directors should try to objectively assess their departments' capabilities as part of their job, although he has found outsiders' opinions in the procurement capability reviews of benefit.

"Why would one oppose an objective review of one's capability? It may be traumatic but, hey, that's the right thing to do - it's public money you're spending," he says.

"If you have got an organisation that's not capable in procurement terms, then surely one should identify that."

Department for Work and Pensions commercial director, David Smith, says the move to self assessment is a step in the right direction, because it puts the ownership of procurement back with departments.

He says the evaluations were helpful and raised the profile of the importance of good purchasing within government.

"Some might argue I would say that because we've fared reasonably well. But they have been enormously helpful."

He maintains departments should be able to put improvement plans into practice, monitor progress and seek an outside view if it is required.

"If any external input is needed, then departments can do that," he says.

"We may do that ourselves to make sure we have got an appropriate and objective view of the progress we want to make."

Public sector buying specialist Jeremy Bowley, from consultancy Procure4, says self-assessment carries pros and cons.

"It allows you to reflect local differences in organisations and approaches," says Bowley, who works mainly at council level. "However, it does dilute the efficacy of the exercise." He says it is hard to get consistent measures if bodies are using different benchmarks.

The OGC itself is remaining tight-lipped about what lies ahead but says through a spokesman "a robust, systematic self-evaluation approach" is being developed for the reviews beyond the first wave.

OGC board minutes from February show internal discussions about a lighter touch for later waves, with the board hearing the OGC should aim to reduce the review "footprint" in departments by cutting the forensic interview and reporting stages.

The spokesman rejects a suggestion that trimming OGC costs was a factor in the planned changes and points out the organisation will still be providing "significant support" under any new model. "Departments will still require support from OGC in delivering and measuring capability improvements, and the capability agenda is still a central OGC priority."

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