17 April 2014 | Shaun McCarthy
I had the pleasure of spending some time in the Czech Republic last week with my new friends from Nova Ekonomika. They have been running a European-funded programme to support responsible public procurement and asked me to give a keynote speech at their conference to close the project. I would like to thank the team over there for their warm welcome and hospitality.
The conference was well attended by around 160 registered delegates and supported by a minister of state, the British ambassador and the mayors of a number of municipalities around the country. The level of political engagement was impressive.
I was also impressed with the examples and case studies I heard. The drivers are all social and economic, I heard very little about the environment. I did hear some inspirational stories about use of public procurement to address the significant unemployment issues some of the regions face and the challenges to integrate the Roma community into the mainstream economy.
Employment of disabled people was also a significant issue. Under the communist regime disabled people were not expected to be employed or integrated with the community and the use of public procurement to change this perception has been exemplary. But these examples are somewhat isolated and there are significant barriers to making responsible procurement business as usual.
Prague is a magnificent city; if you have not been there, you should go. It has been a centre of trade, a religious and cultural hub for centuries, boasting, for example, the first ever university north of the Alps. Prague has been a cradle of civilisation in central Europe but the Czech Republic has only enjoyed status as an independent democracy for just over two decades. The relative immaturity of the political process is a significant barrier to more effective responsible procurement.
The biggest issue here in public procurement is a legacy of corruption inherited from the days of Soviet control. Any procurement activity that does not award the contract to the lowest bidder attracts the auditors like a moth to a candle; the immediate assumption is one of potential corruption rather than a laudable attempt to achieve value for money beyond the price. None of us find the experience of being audited a pleasant one but as somebody bought up in north west Europe I cannot begin to imagine the fear of investigation by state officials that must be experienced by somebody who has lived in the shadow of the Soviet Union. So, the safest way is to go out to bid and pick the cheapest. Things are changing but it will take time, courageous political leadership and better integration of responsible procurement principles into policy, process, supply chains and people.
I hope I made a small contribution towards helping them understand the art of the possible and I hope to return one day to witness some big changes.
☛ Shaun McCarthy is director at Action Sustainability