An urgent need for change

30 October 2009

30 October 2009

Public sector buyers defended their profession against criticism by the CBI and MPs - but admit there is room for improvement. Jake Kanter reports

As the UK government squares up to the budget deficit, it has plenty of advice to wade through.

Experts, pressure groups and the country's leading political parties have not been shy of expressing views on the state of public finances.

In the spotlight on separate occasions last month were the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and MP Edward Leigh, who has spent years interrogating government financiers as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

One connecting theme between the proposals was procurement, largely condemned as an area of missed opportunity. The CBI was particularly venomous, blasting lengthy and wasteful procedures for inflating costs (News, 5 November). Buyers hit back, arguing there were good reasons why public procurement takes time. They do, nonetheless, have some suggestions of their own when it comes to making improvements.

"The public sector has significantly upped its game in terms of procurement professionalism in the past five to 10 years. However, it is not consistent across the piece," says David Smith, commercial director at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Echoing the opinion of many outside the public sector, Smith marks out collaboration as an area where the government must build on good work. "Do we need so many buying points? Should there be fewer professional procurement organisations across government? We are trying to do this in too many places and therefore we have a degree of inconsistency," he says.

David Thomas, commercial director at HM Revenue & Customs, believes too much collaboration could damage markets, given the government's significant spending power.

"There is always an opportunity to do more, but it has to be for the right reasons and at the right time. Bear in mind collaboration is not the only tool," he says, adding that the public sector should focus on improving its spending data, which he has described in the past as "dodgy".

"I am leading on spend coding across the public sector, which has got to be one of the first and most sensible steps to take. It gives you visibility over the suppliers you're using and enables you to ensure there is resilience in the supply base."

Public sector buyers must build a better understanding of stakeholder and service user needs, says Martin Blake, head of corporate procurement at London Probation. He believes purchasers must get better at forecasting contract outcomes and aligning them with business strategy. "You've got to work out what you're delivering and whom you're delivering it to," he says.

Andy Davies, director of the London Universities Purchasing Consortium, says the public sector must get better at retaining talent and could incentivise staff with better pay.

"Given the programme that we've got to put public finances back on an even keel, incremental improvement in procurement is no longer good enough. What we need is significant behavioural change," he says.

Thomas adds: "When money is short, procurement professionals can, and must, stand up and deliver real value."

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