Are we asking the impossible of public sector buyers?

20 July 2012
Renata Towlson is senior buyer (best practice) at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS TrustSome procurement projects are becoming increasingly more complex and there are a number of good reasons for this. Let us take IT tenders in a large NHS acute trust as an example. There is a local level which needs to take into consideration all the legacy systems and solutions. Then there is a regional level, where collaboration between NHS providers invites a common solution or at least well developed interfaces between different systems. Then there is a national level, on which we are seeking common information and data platforms to benefit from its scale in financial and intelligence terms. And then there are the European and global levels of involvement which IT solutions also like to address. As SM reported this month, Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt “called on the government to include criteria such as sustainability, health and safety alongside time and cost throughout the procurement process”. It is no wonder that senior procurement officers are required to have skills to conduct complex OJEU exercises. But the question I have been asking myself for a while however is “are there too many variables in the NHS procurement landscape to allow professionals to effectively address them?”. I am trying to resist answering “yes”. There is a widespread belief and consequent effort to conduct more and more multi-dimensional and multi-layered projects, so surely the benfits must be worth it? But my observations so far do not support this view. I see MCIPS qualified officers with very good first class degrees in many subjects who can understand and execute procurement projects to high standards, but are still unable to embrace these complexities. The reason for this is simple. To be able to do so, each project would have had to be treated in such detail that the time, cost and personnel engagement would not warrant the project investment in the first case. I appreciate the desire to understand and identify all the variables on which the success of a purchasing project depends. I understand why organisational leaders are keen to find brilliantly talented and skilled procurement professionals who will help design and execute complex projects. But are we asking for the impossible? We know that procurement today is a complex world and because of that we need to be simple and specific in our response. Make the complex simple. ☛ Renata Towlson is a category manager at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust
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