Government procurement. Not that easy, is it?

27 September 2010
Peter Smith, director of Procurement ExcellenceI take a non-political stance here and on my own blog. I take the line that questioning the competence and methodology of government policy delivery in the context of procurement is legitimate: challenging policy itself is not. So please don’t interpret these comments in any other way. But we are beginning to see the difference between fine manifesto words (remember that when we read Labour’s in 2015) and the reality of government, even in our own field of procurement. In particular, we saw last week the beginning of a pulling back from commitments on contract transparency for instance. From a procurement point of view, I think this is sensible. But before the election, David Cameron himself was clear that government contracts would be published, commercial details and all. If suppliers didn’t like it, that was tough. Now we have OGC saying “commercially confidential” material can be omitted. In its words: “Exemptions and redactions from publication are assessed in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act, which may include commercially sensitive information.” Meanwhile, the commitment to publish all tender documents turns out not to mean bringing forward the “single portal for all contracts over £10,000” (the Glover Review project already under way) but rather publishing details when the actual tender is issued – interesting to see, but too late of course for suppliers that haven’t already responded. And the “negotiating immediate cost savings from top suppliers” activity has had an inauspicious week. Two firms have announced memorandums of understanding with government but haven’t lost a single project or, as far as we can tell, offered up anything real in financial terms. Commercial confidentiality came into play again here (whither transparency?) with the Atos Origin announcement. But the Atos share price went up 7 per cent, which was hardly a sign of brutal government price cuts! Now there is still time for this initiative to deliver, but we’re five months in so the “immediate” is wearing a little thin… Meanwhile the “does OGC still exist” question continues and, from what I see and hear, there is much uncertainty among OGC staff. My understanding is the OGC has no meaningful existence as an entity any longer, but the stiletto has yet to be slipped between the shoulder blades. So a lot is riding on demonstrable success from the initiative to centralise expenditure on common categories in central government - a concept I fully support, although in the greater scheme of deficit reduction it is unlikely to be a huge contributor. I asked the Cabinet Office six weeks ago which spend categories were in the programme. I’ve had two holding responses so far and no details (under a FOI request I should say), so I’m beginning to worry a little about progress here. We saw a new OJEU for vehicles a while ago, with a new mandated approach, but it would be reassuring to see the plans laid out more clearly in terms of how this is going to work, what is included and so on. Maybe all will be revealed with the Spending Review on 20 October. Let’s hope so.
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