The future of central government procurement

17 September 2010
Listening to John Collington speak at a conference yesterday, I really got a sense (for the first time) that the highest levels in government are deadly serious about making huge procurement savings. According to Collington, the PM himself is involved. He (Collington) told the Procurecon Public 2010 delegates that the chancellor and the prime minister agree centralised commodity spend is a vital and urgent way to bring down the deficit, and indeed, it was listed as the first bullet point in a memo from George Osborne to David Cameron. The backing doesn’t get much higher than that. But it may not all be good news. We won’t know how procurement will be affected by the coalition’s cuts until 20 October, when the chancellor reveals details of the spending review. Until then we are left to speculate about reductions to overall departmental budgets and headcounts. As I have mentioned before, I don’t follow the logic of looking for massive extra savings while simultaneously cutting buyer numbers and look forward to how that circle will be squared. But, this level of engagement is very welcome. And of course it isn’t just political. Collington, as head of the Efficiency and Reform Group, will lead the charge for the profession. And Sir Philip Green will ensure that best practice form the private sector – and the retail sector at that – is brought to bear on Whitehall buying. Collington said improved data and mandating spend for common categories (office supplies, software, travel etc) will be central to this transformation. Nigel Smith made similar points about data when he started at the OGC three years ago. But without the political will, individual departments were not compelled to follow requests from the centre. That will no longer be the case. Public sector procurement is now under greater scrutiny than ever before.  And its influence will extend way beyond the buyers themselves. This will impact all of us as taxpayers and, what’s more, its effect on the budget deficit will impact the debt and tax burden of generations to come. It could not be more vital. As Collington put it: “There has never been a better time to shine for the procurement profession. It is up to us to take advantage of it within a very short period”.
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