Purchasing is not a panacea

14 October 2011
Renata Towlson is senior buyer (best practice) at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS TrustSpeaking at the CIPS Conference 2011, Ellis Watson, managing director of newspapers at publisher DC Thomson, said: “When you have good procurement it’s one of the most liberating tools in an organisation’s armoury. I know the difference you make is enormous.” There is a widespread belief at the moment that procurement will make a great difference to the financial hole in the NHS budget. After more than a decade of service within NHS landscape however, my observations paint a much more complex picture, which should be examined to substantiate such a theory. The procurement function is very important, agreed, but only one of many functions within the public sector, which are very different from those in private commerce. There is a lot of talk about the public and private learning from each other, collaborating to achieve the best practice perspectives and combining forces in the name of bonum commune communitatis (the common good of the community). This is good but make no mistake, the public and private cannot dance together in their current models. Public models are philosophical, multi-dimensional and their variables are countless and the pursuit for fairness, justice, equality and transparency is never ending. The private sector is pragmatic, instinctively knows how to reduce market variables, how to embed complexities of human conditions, how to allow for commoditising human labour or how to unleash talent and energy - even if the risks occasionally seem higher than average. Neither of these approaches is superior to the other. The notion the private is indivisibly unscrupulous and oblivious to public good is a very simplistic approach, as the thought that the public sector has best interest of every individual at its heart is. I am convinced there has been a lot of arrogance in both camps over the last century and the dire consequence of this is a lack of courage to publicly discuss the meaningful and socially viable criteria of fairness. Procurement has a significant role to play as it is a discipline influencing both private and public domains due to corporate social responsibility, sustainability, commercial criteria and evaluation processes. But purchasing is not a panacea on the various financial failures of the public sector, it is only a tool to facilitate best practice. What is best practice must be decided and agreed. It is neither private nor public, but I cannot see anyone capable of formulating a completely new solution to the crisis we are in. The shift of attention to procurement might be very pleasing to professionals but the move is only to design new belief, which will carry the power tank for a little bit longer. Ellis Watson might be right saying that procurement is one of the most liberating tools in an organisation’s armoury, but definitely it is not in sufficient condition to rescue it.
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