Brexit can right the wrongs of public procurement

posted by David Salters
1 July 2019

Brexit has delivered some issues, no doubt about that. It has also presented a massive opportunity to put right a lot of what is wrong in the public procurement sphere.

This is a chance to establish the foundations of public procurement policy and to enable contracting authorities to drive real value for money, cost effectiveness, continuous development and innovation into the public services for the communities they serve.

The principles of public procurement are well intentioned, and I don’t want to belittle the virtue or the spirit in which they have been developed. However, these principles have been adopted into regulations, guidance and policy to present the buyer with an abundance of red tape, approval levels, advertising requirements, evaluation criteria and legal scrutiny that delivers a stagnant, rigid and inflexible approach to delivering value on public contracts. This restricts the buyer and the seller and imposes a process mentality into the completion of documents by the seller and the evaluation criteria for the buyer. As we all agree, hindsight is perfect, but the cast in stone approach to public procurement doesn’t allow for observation or acknowledgement of additional value uncovered throughout the process.  

This rigidity is strangling development of the market and in turn restricting the development of value and services. This manifest itself in a conveyor belt approach to producing cloned procurement exercises. Instead of long-term strategies, the supply chain is fixated on small sprint periods of two to five years, before the renewal of the same old process and the lottery of the evaluation process and abnormally low bids. There is no benefit in long term growth strategies or investment as the supplier as the procurement process won’t recognise the investment benefits at the time of re-tender. The service level is managed at a constant rather than continuous developing the services and value to those that need them.

I argue that we can do better than this.

The principles of public procurement are: accountability, competitive supply, consistency, effectiveness, efficiency, fair-dealing, integration, integrity, informed decision-making, legality, responsiveness, and transparency.

I have over 20 years’ experience in the procurement world, with experience in both private and public sectors and I can guarantee that any procurement professional, private or public, will not have a single problem with any of these principles. However, these principles are then wrapped in the EU Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which would appear to approach the subject as if we are all ready to accept corruption and dodgy dealing as the norm. 

In my entire time in procurement, I have never been offered, let alone accepted a bribe, sweetener or gift from a supplier (the odd box of chocolates at Christmas excluded). Now, maybe I just don’t present as someone who would be influenced by such an offer, but I would suggest it is much more likely that the market is not as corrupt as the regulations would make you feel and the paranoid approach to ‘fair play’ has went beyond what is necessary to police bad elements within our profession. The fact that the private sector does not have to apply the same regulations would make you believe that every contract won in the private sector was due to a rogue money exchange or funny handshake. This just isn’t accurate.

If we believe in procurement as a profession, if we reward the role appropriately, acknowledge the value creation within the role and support our colleagues then I see no reason why government contracts cannot be delivered in full alignment with the principles of public procurement without the strangulating policy and regulations that accompany them.

We can self regulate like other professions (law, medicine etc.) by setting standards and levels of behaviours for ourselves with severe penalties for members who fall short of those standards. Instead of treating everyone with a tinge of mistrust, we should run the rogues out of the profession. Is this a role for CIPS, a licensing body or standards organisations?  

So, I am hoping that with Brexit there is ceremonial ripping up of the Public Contracts Regulations and that the procurement professionals are enabled to drive value, cost savings and innovation through transparent, fair and legal processes. This will benefit the public, public services and public sector workers, whilst ensuring that supply chain partners are engaged, searching for new added value services and developing skills that are transferable and exportable. My fear is that the European Directives are replaced with something equally as limited and cumbersome. 

In a time when we seek leadership from our politicians, I ask that they take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and allow us to do what we do best – reduce costs, eliminate waste, deliver innovation and add value.

☛ David Salters is director of procurement at Greenview Group

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