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.
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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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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