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Public sector procurement: in between a rock and a hard place

Public sector procurement: in between a rock and a hard place
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Public sector procurement: in between a rock and a hard place2

Finance | Robert Ashton | 13 Jan 2012

The problem of public sector procurement is not the process, but what comes before, says Robert Ashton. He suggests there is another way to decide what contracts are needed.

So there I was. Lying fully clothed on a table, eyes closed holding a smooth pebble in my left hand, whilst Alison stood silently and studiously over me. On my chest was a laminated card bearing weird hieroglyphics. Similar images adorned posters on the wall beside us. Something inside me stirred; I wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of my situation. I also wanted to run away. But curiosity kept me there for more than an hour. It was in a strange way rather relaxing.

It has to be said I’m usually very quick to explore the unknown and have put myself in some pretty unusual places over the years. Little worries me and so when a trusted friend (a respected local architect) told me how Kinesiology had helped him, I thought well let’s give it a try.

Inevitably at these times one tries to ‘think of England’ but instead I thought about local government! You see, just as I was finding it difficult to take this alternative therapy seriously, so they must find some of the problem solvers knocking on local Council's doors equally challenging.

Whoever you are and whatever your background, it is quite natural to be suspicious of strangers offering salvation from seemingly incurable ills. We’ve all read about those Wild West town square quacks, peddling magic potions. You know, the guys who sell you crap, but are miles away with your money in their pocket before you discover you’ve been conned. There are certainly some of those around today!
So what’s the answer?

For me the problem with public sector procurement is not the process (although PQQ in my view should stand for ‘pretty quick quagmire’) but what goes before. They decide what they want then go to tender to procure it. But that’s like procuring faster steam trains whilst ignorant that diesels are new, reliable and faster. Worse, a separate contract to supply coal has already been signed. Too often, they’re stuffed before they start.

Many of the projects I take on these days are developed differently. The organisation and I explore the challenge and identify the true opportunity, even before I have been commissioned. Funding usually comes from a number of sources as inevitably, ‘big society’ projects cannot work with only one stakeholder. It means doing things differently and yes, that can be daunting.

I like to think that just as ‘big society’ heralds a return to grassroots community involvement, it will also see instinct, trust and integrity replacing complicated commissioning processes. But that takes me back to my willingness to try the unknown. I’m happy to close my eyes, hold that pebble and risk embarrassment. Those in the public sector too often seem to prefer to wedge themselves between a rock and a hard place instead. How can we make it easier for them to risk doing things differently?

 

Catherine Courte
15 Feb 2012

Strangers offering evidence should be more welcome, but our experience is that even this pre-tender activity is refused by those prepping the tender spec. A recent con-call with DWP resulted in our three years of detailed urban and rural evidence of best practice, costs and outcomes being refused as it didn't fit policy. What should we do? we asked. Share it with the successful bidder when the tender's awarded was the daft reply.

David Davison
Director
Spence & Partners Ltd
13 Jan 2012

Great blog and couldn't agree more. The so called procurement specialists frequently don't understand, or want to understand, the detail and so revert to formula driven processes and PQQ documentation frequently that almost inevitably leaves you with little potential for innovative thinking. In addition the prospect of someone in this position 'taking a risk' is a pretty giant leap when in so many cases the old 'you can't go wrong with IBM' principle abounds.

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