Public service commissioners have it tough too

28 May 2012 Voices

Service delivery charities must realise that government procurement teams are under immense pressure too, says Becky Slack.

Service delivery charities must realise that government procurement teams are under immense pressure too, says Becky Slack.

Last week's Civil Society Question Time debate (pictured) was a useful contribution to the sector. There was healthy disagreement over what the coalition had achieved in the last two years, informed ideas on what was needed to take the sector forward, and plenty of opinion on what was and wasn't working.

As a journalist who writes about both charity and government, it was the discussion around public service delivery that interested me the most. There was much bemoaning of the fact charities haven't won the number of contracts they wanted, that payment by results was too risky, that the Work Programme was a disaster, that charities don't have enough working capital to make effective bids. The list goes on...

While the points raised were valid and real and demonstrated some of the very difficult challenges faced by the voluntary sector in this area, there was an important omission from the conversation: no one mentioned the crucial yet increasingly pressurised role of the public service commissioners and procurement officials. This is despite these being the very people who design and purchase the programmes and services that charities are so keen to deliver.

For example, there was no acknowledgement of the massive programme of efficiency and reform that is currently sweeping its way through government. Yet this is of particular relevance to public service delivery for two main reasons.

The first is that efficiency and reform has inevitably meant job cuts. In 2007, there were a total of 532,000 civil servants. By 2011, this had reduced by almost 80,000 to 453,000 – the lowest number since World War Two. The statistics are not yet available for 2012 but are expected to be lower again.

While the Cabinet Office has not recorded details of the job losses within procurement, it is fair to say that these teams have taken their fair share of the hit. The Institute for Government says that the number of civil servants in core Whitehall departments has dropped 8.7 per cent since October 2010 – more than twice the rate across the rest of the civil service. Also, some departments have suffered more than others. The Department for Communities and Local Government has reduced its head count by 19.8 per cent while the Home Office has lost 17.6 per cent of its staff, according to a 2011 National Audit Office report.

The second is that while staff numbers – and therefore levels of capability and expertise – have decreased, the demands placed on commissioning and procurement teams have increased, and continue to do so.

Let’s use the Government Procurement Service (GPS) as an example. The largest professional buying organisation in the public sector, it manages relationships with over 14,500 organisations in central and local government, health, education and the not-for-profit sector.

Along with ensuring that purchasing decisions enable strategic objectives to be met in a cost-effective manner, the GPS is mandated to apply new LEAN sourcing principles to all that it does. These are designed to make doing business with government more efficient for both buyers and suppliers. Among the list of requirements is extensive (but also streamlined) pre-market engagement, the need to be OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) compliant and a drive to record continuous improvement in project planning. 

At the same time, Equality Impact Assessments have to be conducted. The risk of fraud is to be minimised. The requirements of Chris White's Social Value Act have to be taken into account, as too does the fact that 25 per cent of business must be awarded to SMEs by 2015. Then there is the need to cut carbon levels within supply chains, and let us not forget the preference for products and services to demonstrate innovation. And finally, all of this has to happen within a 120-day timeframe, quicker if possible.

It is a similar picture within the individual departments, which in addition to all of the above, also have their own strategic and policy objectives to apply.

This all adds up into one very busy working schedule. It is not hard to see why commissioners prefer to stick with who and what they know. Charities' lack of working capital is one more worry they can do without.

However, this is not to say that all is lost for charities. There are some glimmers of sunshine on the horizon that have the potential to open up doors for the voluntary sector.

The introduction of a commissioning academy is one of them. As reported by Civil Service World  the coalition government wants to strengthen the skillset of civil servants by providing them with formal training in procurement. Further details are expected in the summer but the Cabinet Office has confirmed that working with the voluntary sector, including social enterprise and mutuals, will be included in the programme.

Crown representative for the voluntary sector

The other opportunity is the recruitment of a Crown representative for the voluntary sector. The process for this began in February and an announcement is due to be made shortly.

This is really good news for charities. Crown representatives facilitate strategic dialogue between Whitehall and a defined supplier or group of suppliers and their trade associations. They get a seat at the table, their voices are listened to and they can help develop new initiatives and ideas; the aim being that they enable everyone to have fair and equal access to government.

Stephen Allott is the Crown representative for the SME community. Earlier this month, I interviewed him for Civil Service World. Just as the voluntary sector finds it difficult to open the right doors within Whitehall, so too do SMEs. Despite accounting for 50 per cent of the turnover in the UK economy, in 2010 they had only won 6.5 per cent of central government's business. Allott is focused on increasing this figure to that aforementioned target of 25 per cent. He's identified two main ways to achieve this, which I believe also have relevance for charities and could give an indication as to what the sector can expect from its own Crown rep.

The first is more pre-market engagement – he wants SMEs to inform purchasing specifications and build bigger, better, stronger relationships with officials. To help progress this vision, he has introduced a number of initiatives. These include SME champions – procurement staff given the specific challenge of promoting the value of this sector within government; product surgeries that give SMEs the chance to pitch to commissioners; and a mystery shopper scheme, where SMEs are encouraged to report difficult and unfair tender processes to the Cabinet Office. It will then investigate the complaint and, if appropriate, will work with the offending body to make relevant changes to the way they do business.

The second is the upskilling of SMEs in the art of bidding. Commissioners have to judge a company on what they write in the tender document rather than on anything else that is known about them – get that wrong and the organisation misses out on a contract, even if in reality it is the best one for the job. This same principle applies to charities, yet how many can say with confidence that their tendering skills are the best they could be?

The new Crown rep for the voluntary sector will obviously have their own ideas about how best to meet their brief, and they won't be a panacea for all the sector's woes, but I believe their appointment will have the potential to do a great deal of good for charities within government.

I want to close with reference to a comment made by the Institute of Fundraising’s chief executive, Peter Lewis at the Question Time debate. He said that charities often do themselves a disservice by focusing on themselves rather than the communities they serve. I would like to add to that by asking the sector to also spare a thought for civil servants. Charity workers are not the only ones having to do more with less. Their colleagues across Whitehall are too. Anything that the sector can do to acknowledge this throughout the procurement process can only be a good thing, particularly if it helps makes the lives of commissioners easier.

Becky Slack is a freelance journalist and communications consultant

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