Call for better public buying

26 February 2010

2 March 2010 | Jake Kanter

The UK government’s most senior buyers have called for swift and meaningful improvement to public procurement.

Commercial directors at some the biggest central government departments rallied behind candid comments made last month by Nigel Smith, CEO at the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

He told a procurement conference in London that ignorance, a lack of professional capability and “jobsworths” were obstructing procurement’s ability to help restore public finances. He also cited a lack of transparency, poor spend data and too many buying points as other problems.

Smith balanced the criticism highlighting good work in the public sector, including record savings of £1.4 billion through collaborative procurement last year. But he stressed that challenges must be overcome if purchasing is to play a more central role in protecting frontline services.

“The profession needs to rise to the challenge over the next few months and bring fresh thinking on structure, governance, processes, data and the skills needed to bring about a real revolution in public procurement.”

His comments came as the government posted its worst borrowing figures on record for a January, with the budget deficit reaching £4.3 billion. All major political parties recognise that spending cuts must be made to address this shortfall.

David Smith, commercial director at the Department for Work and Pensions, described Smith’s remarks as a “wake up call” for the profession.

“I believe [public procurement] can be as good as it gets in places, but to restore public finances it must be consistently good. We need to step up to the plate and, if necessary, reskill.”

Ian Taylor commercial director at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, added: “I think it’s absolutely right to challenge the profession in the public sector.

“I’ve seen enormous progress in public sector procurement and have confidence we can innovate in response to the financial situation. Carrying on as we are will not be enough.”

HM Revenue & Customs commercial director David Thomas said a number of permanent secretaries share the OGC chief’s views and politicians must decide whether procurement is part of the problem or the solution. In Thomas’ opinion, purchasing holds the key, but he conceded that delivery would require investment in capability.

Home Office commercial director John Collington said the OGC chief executive should be “challenging and sometimes controversial” and believes public buyers will react positively to balance spending cuts.

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