Heroes of Procurement

Sharing best Practices and Resources Strengthened our Procurement Networks

CIPS 15 September 2020

Local authorities in the South West England public sector have formed a working group to share vital knowledge, resources and lessons learned from Covid-19.

At the start of the global pandemic, the UK public sector fought to rapidly respond to the ever-changing environment and requirements. While stumbling in the dark, many authorities felt there was a need for a platform that would help them communicate with the wider public procurement network, to share information and learn from each other in an efficient and strategic way. To resolve this, the South West Procurement Board and the Devon and Cornwall Procurement Partnership, alongside a wider network, set up a collaborative working group.

In early April, the Covid-19 Procurement Management Working Group came together to share best practices around responding to Covid-19 impacts, working with suppliers and prioritising procurement projects. The group consists of 40 public authorities and services across South West England, including local government (e.g. district, city and county councils) such as West Devon Borough Council and Exeter City Council, universities, national parks, housing associations, NHS hospitals and primary care trusts, the Met Office (the local branch of the central government), and blue light services such as fire brigades.


  1. Sharing Knowledge and Resources
  2. Lessons for Ensuring Supplier Support
  3. Joint Procurement for PPE
  4. Business Continuity
web conference

The group gathered for weekly Skype meetings, as well as communicating through the Local Government Association’s (LGA) online forum, and an email network. In this way, the lockdown has prompted a boost in communications, as smaller teams seek channels to regularly connect with the procurement public sector.

Chanelle Busby, service lead of commercial and procurement at Exeter City Council, and chair of the South West Procurement Board, says the LGA Knowledge Hub portal was a vital resource within the group, allowing forum conversations on procurement issues of interest, and used in conjunction with meetings to allow parties to talk and ask questions. “Obviously, not everyone can always attend meetings, so we're also using the South West Procurement Board Knowledge Hub group [on the LGA portal]. We've set up a specific Covid-19 thread on there which has been a useful means of communication that can go broader, as the platform can also be accessed by anyone in the public sector across the region.”

As the UK government published several versions of public sector guidance on PPE specifications and health and safety measures through Public Health England, the collaborative group has been gathering the relevant information for professionals sourcing PPE. Updates and revisions to recommendations have been shared through the working group’s online LGA forum, and any issues or questions clarified in regular group Skype conversations.

 Sharing Knowledge and Resources

The ability to share best practices and resources was a significant support resource during a particularly challenging time, especially for services or councils with smaller procurement teams and less experience or contacts to draw upon. Busby highlights: “Approaches will differ from organisation to organisation, and it's good to bounce off each other and know where people are with things, ie. whether they’ve been getting central government help, or if staff have been furloughed.”

Brendan Downes, specialist procurement of strategy and commissioning at South Somerset District Council, adds: “The dialogue within the procurement network in the South West has always been constructive and positive, and in the current crisis there is a real willingness to openly share advice and expertise, as well as new tools and procedures.

“In previous (private sector) roles I was responsible for developing and facilitating procurement networks across regions and sectors, and am a firm believer in the power of networks to gain insights, share knowledge and find alternative solutions to common problems.”

Sharing templates and documentation has been highlighted as one of the biggest benefits to come out of the Covid-19 Procurement Management Working Group. Rosanna Wilson, corporate procurement officer at Teignbridge District Council, South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council, says: “We've been sharing templates of supplier questionnaires to determine whether they need supplier relief. There have been lots of processes that have been shared: criticality matrixes and risk matrixes etc., which has especially helped smaller district councils that might be rural and not have a lot of procurement support.”

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 Lessons for Ensuring Supplier Support

One of the main functions of the shared network has been to help procurement teams determine when to provide supplier relief in response to Covid-19. Supporting suppliers to ensure its supply base can survive the pandemic is imperative for the public procurement sector. However, as the working group has many types of public services with varying levels of resources, individual services needed to find the best way to accommodate their suppliers. This spanned changes such as reevaluating contracts with flexible terms, fast-tracking payments, providing additional financial relief, assisting in product diversification and helping maintain logistical routes during the lockdown. Busby says: “The main debate was whether we should be reactive to this and help suppliers when they ask for help, or be more proactive and contact our entire supply network, especially where a criticality matrix has determined who needs the supply relief. Opinions vary, as it [the working group] is a broad range of organisations with a very broad range of team sizes and resources available to work with on this.”

Teams that had already engaged with suppliers passed on a template conversation and shared the most important issues that suppliers had noted, as well as ways these could be managed. Wilson says that one council, which had already spoken to its staff supplier agency about performing contract management on an ongoing basis, was able to share topics discussed, helping inform other councils and organisations. “While they didn't share any kind of confidential information, that's a really useful opener to start the tender and have available, especially if you're an individual professional and in an organisation that doesn't necessarily know that market very well [ie. PPE].”

While some had encountered challenges in terms of force majeure, the collective principle had been to work with suppliers to help provide relief and to negotiate a way forward to avoid resorting to force majeure.

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 Joint Procurement for PPE

The shared resources of the group have enabled many smaller authorities to secure PPE more easily by overcoming the barrier of minimum order quantities. Wilson says that during the first weeks of the outbreak, a neighbouring council colleague found a reliable PPE source, but the minimum order quantities were far higher than he needed for a small district authority. Operating a collective buying group of those seeking the same products was the simplest solution.

Since then, the authorities have been identifying similar PPE requirements to inform a joint procurement venture, ensuring the correct amount is bought at a fair price, and to avoid buying more than necessary, which would reduce the limited stock available to the health sector.

Rob Logan, director of procurement at the University of Bristol, says: “There are a few joint procurements that are key examples of benefits achieved through being part of this working group. [This includes] the local council body’s joint contract for their e-tendering system, which means suppliers only need to register once, and there have also been some recent joint purchasing of PPE items, which are very difficult to obtain otherwise.

“We’ve also been able to attract central government bodies to reach a wider audience – notably the Cabinet Office and the Competition & Markets Authority.”

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 Business Continuity

As the pandemic eases, restrictions lift and companies modify their supply bases accordingly, authorities will need to continue communications to adapt once again to changing service needs and demands. Wilson highlights that, depending on a country’s approach to public announcements, restrictions could be lifted at any time, even late at night, which would give public services a very short time to mobilise and bring services back online.

There needs to be constant communication between suppliers and buyers to ensure a smooth transition, with a clear process and schedule in place. Wilson emphasises: “We all need to have a conversation about how we're going to do that. We'll likely build that into contract variation. For example, I submitted a contract variation to include a statement to say that when the services resumed, the council would give a certain amount of hours’ notice, and then written notice.”

Increased risk mitigation is also required in areas post-pandemic, and specific recovery stages implemented in advance. Busby says these areas of business continuity have been hot topics of discussion on their forum. “I think recovery is probably something we need to add to the agenda on an ongoing basis. However, initially, we've been reacting to the situation, rather than thinking into the future,” she added.

Downes at South Somerset District Council, says: “I believe the crisis has strengthened collegiate relationships between procurement professionals as we look to protect our communities, deliver services and support our suppliers through this period and into recovery. I would like to see further and deeper collaboration to develop solutions as we move into the recovery phase.”

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