Be careful what you wish for when it comes to spend data

13 June 2013
If you were to gather up every report over the last 25 years into the faults and failings of public sector procurement, it’s a fair bet that in each one, a lack of good data is identified as a key contributor to the problems that occurred. But if you believe Procserve, the evolution of e-procurement and the granular data it can provide could result in the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee having to find a new favourite bugbear. Through their system, the company says, the public sector will be able to gather data that doesn’t just detail how much a department spent on pens, but will go down to a granular level of detail, including the brand of pens, how many were purchased and when. This is what everybody from ministers right down to junior buyers has been wanting. But during a roundtable discussion at the Procserve offices on Tuesday, conducted under Chatham House rules, the senior members of the procurement profession from the public sector brought a number of concerns to the fore. They all agreed the quantitative power provided by better data could be a very useful weapon, but it could just easily be turned against them if not placed in the right context. For example, were Phillip Green to be called back to the corridors of power to tot up different departments paperclip purchasing habits, he would not just levy criticism over the bulk spend, but most likely blast a department for buying the £1.42 pack when an 84 pence was readily on offer. That argument stands up on a quantitative basis, but if the reality is that the clips within the 84 pence box snap when holding anything more than 50 pages, it falls flat. And that, as a member of the group proposed, is the missing piece of the puzzle. The ability to gather better, more comprehensive data, would enable buyers to do a great many things, but without strong qualitative feedback, the potential value is slashed. There will be more from the roundtable discussion on later this month
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