Despite the criticism of public procurement, there are thousands of dedicated procurement professionals who work tirelessly to buy goods and services from private companies or not-for-profits in order to make the public purse go further and deliver good quality services for residents.
These specialists work under many constraints that ensure fairness, openness and transparency around awarding contracts but that can make the procurement process feel like having to rewire a plane during a flight. The rules of the EU public procurement directive, for instance, are so complex, and the opportunities for bidders to submit legal challenge to the process so easy, it can feel as though the plane may crash at any minute.
Here is one example of how the directive works. For the majority of contracts, we are allowed to “clarify” or check submissions with the companies or organisations that have bid for the contract, but this should only lead to a change in price if the bidders have misunderstood the brief or made genuine mistakes. Who can say if this delivers the value for money we would be able to achieve if we could openly negotiate with bidders?
Yet despite the constraints, there are many excellent examples of major contracts being awarded and managed professionally. I manage a shared procurement service for Coventry city and Solihull metropolitan borough councils, and by working together in this way we are delivering better value for money for Coventry and Solihull taxpayers: combining our spend on food contracts for schools, care homes and civic centres saved £350,000 a year. A mix of procurement professionals with private and public sector backgrounds working as part of multifunctional teams is the recipe for success.
But procurement professionals cannot deliver successful contracts alone. There needs to be close working relationships with legal, finance, technical and service colleagues. And service users should, where possible, be included in the evaluation process as well as consulted on any proposed service changes.
The art of awarding great contracts after assessing risk is being able to predict what may change in the future and then include in the contract how that will be dealt with – and nobody can do that with 100% certainty. Once a contract has been awarded, excellent contract management is essential to make sure issues that emerge over time are dealt with effectively. Key performance indicators are our early warning system that allow things to be put right as problems occur so they do not derail the contract.
Contract management skills need to be further developed in local government. We have some pockets of excellence, such as in Solihull where we have reduced the cost of the council’s electrical repairs in the town hall, libraries and schools and colleges by 50% over five years. This has been achieved by co-locating staff and sharing information and communications technology systems and processes with the private provider of the services.
The Society of Procurement Officers in Local Government (Sopo) will continue to lobby chief executives and councillors to explain the importance of good contract management so it is not left solely to frontline staff to ensure contracts are delivered on time and to specification. Good contract managers need to have some operational distance from daily service delivery while understanding the detail of the contract. It’s a complex challenge. But every council must make sure its procurement is as good as possible.
Written by Liz Welton in The Guardian