Overhauling public sector procurement

28 November 2011
Renata Towlson is senior buyer (best practice) at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS TrustSupply Management recently published three interesting features which caught my attention:  Going Public, Public procurements get 120-day deadline and Government boosts SME consultancies with framework agreement. Public procurement is getting a lot of press coverage of late; even Lord Sugar had his say in Parliament on the subject.  All a good and long-awaited development, so why am I concerned? I was invited to talk about the commissioning and procurement of interpretation and translation services at a learning event sponsored by The Department of Health and organised by The Race Equality Foundation, which I very much enjoyed. It was a rare opportunity for me to meet in one place commissioning professionals, procurement representatives and small businesses specialising in providing interpreting and translation services across England. It was apparent that commissioners did not fully understand the procurement role and procurement looked puzzled by the commissioners’ approach to the market place. Furthermore, it was obvious small interpretation and translation services providers were dissatisfied with the many obstacles to access public contracts. Whether there is a need to set up a ‘commissioning academy’ to train ‘capable, confident and courageous’ public sector procurement professionals or break down frameworks into small lots for specialist consultancy, expected to be more suited to small and medium-sized enterprises’ capacity or whether the most important aspect is the reform of the procurement reform model, it is the Big Change that everybody is looking for. There is an expectation of procurement becoming a much stronger core competence for the delivery of government policy and by becoming creative, competent and courageous to fundamentally change the unsatisfactory picture of the current status, although, admittedly, much improved over the past two years. The authors of ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of UK public sector procurement (Going Public) suggest a list of improvements. To ‘reform the procurement reform model’ – it is beyond my comprehension as to what the authors actually mean - but I do understand and agree with a lot of their other suggestions. The one that struck me most was ‘mandation and more formal decision-making’, which for the NHS translates itself to hold to account chief executives and senior medical leaders for procurement strategy. But for that to take place the model of the NHS needs changing. Procurement is a powerful tool but just a tool nevertheless and a tool is only as good as the people using it and the people in turn are only as good as the organisational leadership and business models. And, it is these, I think, that in the public sector require reshaping with a complete overhaul. I am concerned that although a lot of positive emotional and intellectual energy is poured into this subject, we really do not know how to deal with the elephant in question. Being culturally accustomed to evolution rather than revolution, desire for radical change might prove to be fruitless however intellectually stimulating. As Albert Einstein said: “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew.”
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