Babies and bathwater

12 October 2010
Many Whitehall buyers will be smarting this morning at the headlines following Sir Philip Green’s report yesterday into central government procurement. There may also be a sense of déjà vu of claims over a “staggering” waste of money and “consistent failure” to make the most of its scale and buying power. Reports from various auditing bodies and parliamentary committees have for many years made similar claims, although these usually apply to one department, not the public sector as a whole. And news for these buyers is not about to get any better. Next Wednesday we will know the size of the cuts that central government departments will have to make. The announcement of the spending review findings, expected on 20 October, will set the parameters for public sector purchasers for many years. The headline percentages have already been revealed and there is widespread acknowledgement that these figures will mean doing more with less (perhaps fewer people), or doing the same with a lot less. But the details remain under lock and 
key. Indeed, it may be some days after next Wednesday before we understand exactly how departmental budgets will be affected. While most procurement professionals accept the need to help the coalition reduce the £155 billion deficit, many are keen to ensure their views, achievements and existing deals are not lost in the clamour of the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) initiative. Specifically, they want to make sure their existing savings, transformations and spend management data are not disregarded. ERG procurement director John Collington has made it clear that data and centralised commodity spend are crucial elements of the plan. But some public sector buyers fear mandated commodity spend will not bring benefits to their departments, nor to the taxpayer. When a great deal is in place, they are concerned this will be lost with the imposition of a centrally negotiated contract. Further, the historic absence of data collected and analysed uniformly across thousands of spending bodies means assessing what has been spent, where and how will be a gargantuan task – and one that has to be completed before accurate post-spending review savings claims can be made. The ERG has canvassed widely, and drafted in high-level expertise, (of which Sir Philip is one example) before finalising its plans. And, there is, even within public sector buying, an acknowledgement of some waste and inefficiency. But many SM readers fear that as the bathwater is thrown out, the ERG will take some thriving, innovative and efficient babies with it.
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