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

13 Jan 2012 News

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.

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?

 

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