Procurement Becomes a UK Election Issue

We are now no more than 4 months away from a general election in the UK; it must be held by June 3rd, although under our system the government can choose the specific date within this timeframe. The strong favorite is May 6th, which would mean combining the national elections with the already scheduled local elections, saving the political parties money, which for Labour is a major issue as its finances are shaky.

Given the state of the economy, reducing public expenditure will be a major issue in the campaign, so public-sector (government) procurement is likely to be a stronger theme than usual. This can be seen in the campaign of David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, who appears to be making “openness” a major element of his proposition. In a speech this week, he said:

"A Conservative government will publish all government contracts worth over £25,000 for goods and services in full, including all performance indicators, break clauses and penalty measures. This will enable the public to root out wasteful spending and poorly negotiated contracts, and open up the procurement system to more small businesses."

As a taxpayer, I find this concept very admirable in many ways; I am, in theory, a big supporter of greater transparency in public life. (More selfishly, I think of all the material for bloggers, commentators, and analysts. I can see some business opportunities for those of us prepared to plough through the tons of detail, packaging up information from contracts...)

BUT....there are some major issues that I'm not sure have been thought through:

  • How will seeing a contract, once it is in place, “root out wasteful spending”? Don't you need to avoid entering into the contract to stop the wasteful spending?
  • How will intellectual property and confidentiality be preserved where it is a real issue?
  • What about those contracts (and yes, there really are some, if the supplier sees strategic advantage over and above pure return from the specific contract) where the government gets a great deal but the supplier will not offer those prices if it would then become public domain? (Universities get great deals on IT and software; the police get great deals on tires.)
  • If publishing contracts creates loads of questions from the public (“What does this performance clause mean?” “Why did you agree to that price when we could supply it cheaper?”), will public bodies be provided adequate resources to handle them?
  • Will this additional scrutiny (and the bureaucracy that will inevitably accompany the scheme) make it harder to attract good people into public-sector procurement? (I can give you the answer to this one: “Yes.”)
  • Finally, are the Conservatives ready for newspapers to start digging into every contract, looking for evidence of “high prices” or “favoritism” and linking it to the ex-Conservative politician on the Board of the supplying company?

    So far, business has been pretty quiet on this; most firms probably favor the Conservatives winning the election, so perhaps they are holding their counsel. Or maybe they just haven't thought through the implications here.

    - Peter Smith

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