Centralisation of public procurement 'may be only answer to contract woes'

18 July 2013

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19 July 2013 | Will Green

MPs believe root and branch reform may be the only answer to address “systemic weaknesses” in government procurement.

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says work to centralise procurement has been “painfully slow and sporadic” and reform may be impossible without “changing the relationship between departments and the centre”.

In a report the PASC says there are “clear shortcomings” in the ability of civil servants to run contracts and while moves to improve commercial skills are welcomed, “a more fundamental culture shift is required”.

Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP and committee chairman, said: “The government is a single customer and should behave as such. It is striking how immune departments seem to be from agreed Cabinet policy.”

Publication of the report comes hard on the heels of the audit of electronic tagging contracts with G4S and Serco and a separate critical report from the Institute for Government.

The PASC report said: “The stream of procurement and management failures continues unabated.”

The report says it is “intolerable” that public procurement takes 50 per cent longer in the UK than it does in France or Germany and “the Cabinet Office does not seem to know why this is the case”. The PASC says knowledge of the skills of government procurement professionals remains unclear.

“Even though there are only 61 civil servants in procurement leadership roles within central government, there is little known about them, their skills and experience, or lack of them, across Whitehall," the report said.

“There is no departmental breakdown and the fact that the Cabinet Office does not know the experience of 17 of the 61 senior procurement cadre indicates a serious lack of coordination of this vital resource.”

Jenkin said: “While we welcome the government’s initiative to centralise procurement, progress so far has been painfully slow and sporadic.

“Only a coherent strategic plan, setting out clear objectives and how they are to be achieved, backed by united leadership across the top of government, can achieve the necessary change.”

Responding to the report CIPS CEO David Noble, who gave evidence to the committee in March, said more work was needed to benchmark best performance and involve the commercial sector more "so we can get the best of what the public and private sectors have to offer".

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