When is a mandate not a mandate?

14 December 2010
Lindsay Clark, international news editor, Supply ManagementHaving reported on government procurement, one way or another, for about 14 years, all I can say is it gets curiouser and curiouser. The current conundrum posed by the Whitehall tea party lies around mandating procurement decisions. When I joined SM in April, I was told collaborative deals – which take advantage of the huge spending power of the government – were all well and good, but the OGC lacked a mandate to get departments to buy goods using the arrangements. Then the new government came along and Chancellor George Osborne talked a lot about rolling up sleeves. Part of this sleeve-rolling was to give the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) – a joint body of the Treasury and Cabinet Office – a mandate on collaborative buying across government. After getting the job of heading the ERG’s procurement team, John Collington, former commercial director of the Home Office, reiterated this point. “The [Cabinet Office] minister [Francis Maude] has said that centralisation of category procurement is going to happen, and we are not going to make that happen through collaboration and in the hope that people will come along and participate and collaborate. It will be done through mandatory policies,” he told SM in October. So far, so good. But in this Wonderland of government, things are not always as they seem. In November, Ian Watmore, chief operating officer at the ERG, told the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) that the idea of a mandate is not that simple. He was asked what he would do if Sir David Normington, permanent secretary to the Home Office, told him to “leave me alone” when he was seeking information about compliance with the efficiency agenda. Watmore told the PAC: “Ultimately, the expenditure that David has in the Home Office is for him as accounting officer and for the home secretary as secretary of state to deal with, so we are not trying to blow their accountability; it is meant to be more helpful.” To me, that’s not much of a mandate. But interpretations will differ. Collington, who reports to Watmore, told SM that departments are committed to the new operating model for procurement and would pool category spend between them. So I suppose that represents his mandate. It sounds impressive, but I wonder what happens if departments’ commitment withers and Collington moves on. I’ve seen it happen. When it was launched in 2003, the multi-billion pound NHS National Programme for IT was supposed to provide health records for all patients in England. The systems it was to build would be so good, that all hospitals would want to use them, we were told. But since then, only a handful of hospitals are using the system, and the new Tory government has axed the programme. Asking about accountability in government rarely provides satisfactory answers and leaves me wondering this: how deep does the rabbit hole go? Thanks to Tony Collins for the tip-off on Watmore’s comments.
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