Procurement is a topic that seems to be much talked about in local government at the moment. What’s your view on the current state of procurement and the attitude of local authorities towards it?
Some of our methods of procurement don’t match the speed with which technology changes – and I think there’s a definite need for local authorities to be bolder when it comes to procurement.
Organisations need to conduct so many checks on suppliers before they’re deemed fit to bid on tenders, which makes it hard for SMEs, who very often are the organisations who can deliver true innovation and value for money. As a result, the public sector has an exclusive band of suppliers to work with, which is limiting.
We have frameworks that we can refer to and use but some of these were developed four or five years ago and are due to expire and may not be renewed. Some use outdated standards and they may be the only option available, so we have to use them. Which means we have a limited set of suppliers, who are working to outdated standards and we have no choice but to accept that. It could be that smaller, newer organisations provide the most up-to-date solutions as they keep pace with changing technology, but they might not have a high turnover, hit a particular threshold, or have capacity to complete lengthy tender documents so they’re excluded.
The G-Cloud Framework is attempting to make it easier for SMEs to win government business. Do you think it’s working?
G-Cloud has tried to help the situation by being more open and updating regularly but I don’t think it goes far enough and, in its development, it’s become unwieldy. One issue I have is that services have been broken down so much and, in some cases, have become so generic, it’s difficult to find what you specifically want and to identify which category a product or service fits into. Sometimes you just don’t know, or you can’t seem to find what you need on it.
As a result, niche companies have set up to serve niche markets and sometimes there’s only one company who can do what you need.
If a company isn’t on G-Cloud, or on another framework or don’t jump through the required hoops to respond to a tender it makes our job in local authorities much harder. We talk about open data and open platforms – I think we also need a more open approach to procurement.
I understand the need for transparency and accountability – that’s perfectly understandable and acceptable when spending public money. But we also need a more flexible situation than we’ve currently got. We have to if we’re to deliver effective solutions that deliver value for money to taxpayers.
Does that mean we end up finding problems to fit solutions, rather than the other way round?
I think we do. The current position means we end up, all too often, rigging systems to do a particular job – or you are using the same suppliers over and over because you’re limited by the framework. It’s an open yet closed shop.
It’s possible that start-ups and SMEs can deliver the best solution for the public sector. Yet, they have to overcome so many hurdles to get onto a framework, with no guarantee of return. It’s one thing opening up G-Cloud, But what’s the encouragement for them to jump through the hoops, what’s the reward?
Given what you’ve said above, do local authorities therefore need to take a different attitude towards risk?
This is the most risk averse sector I’ve worked in. In my previous roles at digital agencies and charities there’s an acceptance that there’s an element of risk and, as long as you understand the risks and mitigate it then, there is a level of acceptance of the risk . In local government it seems that any risk is unacceptable. Safe is the default position.
However, I believe that in order to transform you need to accept that mistakes happen. What’s important is that you learn from those mistakes, avoid making them again and move forward. Local government tends to sit tight and repeat mistakes, partly because the procurement process means you’ve got limited options and therefore you have to go with the same suppliers. You’re stuck in a catch 22.
Would it help if local government worked harder to share more?
Absolutely. Lincolnshire is a two-tier system with the county council and district councils. We’re serving the same people. A customer will ring us to tell us their bin hasn’t been collected. It’s the district council that looks after that, but it shouldn’t matter. It’s the council. Why shouldn’t we work together to provide one point of contact for every need? Let’s deal with the issues and share the data so that together we can serve customers better.
Then, if another council has already addressed a similar issue, why can’t we learn from what they’ve done? As in other sectors, let’s have centres of excellence that we can all learn from and – crucially – share information about procurement and suppliers. We provide services to defined groups of people – our customers have no choice about where they go – yet we act like we’re in competition.
Bringing the discussion full circle, the key is to be bold, think carefully about procurement and accept that there will be an element of risk involved. But, and this is key, understand, manage and accept the risk, rather than trying to avoid it.