Is the public sector 'addicted to standardisation'?

7 June 2013
When it comes to procurement, is the public sector addicted to standardisation? It’s a well-worn cliché, but one that’s apt in this context: one size doesn’t fit all. Yet many in the public sector, especially housing organisations, seem wedded to frameworks and homogenised approaches. This is often understandable given complex procurement regulations and political pressure to tick boxes. Don’t get me wrong. National public sector buying frameworks are crucial. They help organisations to control costs, comply with complex EU procurement law and save time at every stage of what can often be a lengthy tender process. Standard contracts are a vital plank of public sector procurement and they’re here to stay. But pressures to generate income, boost value for money and protect social impact are too great for public sector buyers to remain centered purely on frameworks. We need to compliment this standardised approach with a new focus on business intelligence. And procurement staff have a key role to play in this move towards the commercialisation of public bodies. I’ve been involved in a research project involving buying consortia Procurement for Housing, the University of Liverpool and social landlord Affinity Sutton to explore new solutions. We’re looking at how social housing procurement teams, in particular, can be more influential in bringing about change towards a business-wide commercial approach. Results so far indicate knowledge and data may be the key to making housing providers and other public sector organisations more enterprising and sustainable. Current practices often fail to offer genuine market insight and there is a lack of understanding internally of the potential impact of procurement. Public bodies such as social landlords must get better at analysing market intelligence to strengthen their position with suppliers, provide commercial options internally and make improved financial decisions for the future. The costs of using a firm specialising in market intelligence may be prohibitive for many social landlords, particularly given the wide range needed. Data might be needed about windows, agency labour or Japanese knotweed. Consortia on the other hand are well positioned to share the best practice of their members and act as a broker of data, layering and distributing knowledge that is specific to the social housing sector. It’s important that consortia still advise on standardisation. There will always be a need for the latest information on regulation, compliance and the creation of frameworks. But they must also embrace a new role, using their collaborative position to provide oversight and external analysis to the public bodies they represent. ☛ Andrew Carlin is commercial director at Procurement for Housing and will be exploring these research findings further at PfH Live in Manchester on 25 June 2013.
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