Bloom Helps Public Organisations Buy Consulting Services Better

We said here that there are a couple of interesting developments in our procurement element of the consulting world.

We will have more on Palambridge soon, but we were also interested in the news that the business that operates the NEPRO service has re-branded as Bloom.

NEPRO is a creation of NEPO, the North-east Procurement Organisation. This is a consortium set up and owned by 11 public sector councils (local authorities) in that part of England – my homeland, by the way. NEPRO started as a “vendor neutral” vehicle through which public organisations could engage consultants in a regulatory complaint manner, but has grown into something much more interesting, and pretty unique in public or private sectors.

When NEPO put this in place in 2012, a consulting firm, V4 Services, won the contract to run the NEPRO process, and formed a SPV called NEPRO Ltd to operate that service. That contract has since been re-competed by NEPO, with the same result, and it is NEPRO Ltd that has now changed its name to Bloom. (Following me so far?)

But the interesting aspect really is how Bloom / NEPRO operates and what it provides to users. NEPRO enables clients to engage a wide range of consulting firms – from big to small – while staying within the EU and UK regulatory framework. The transaction and contract is with NEPRO / Bloom, but the project is carried out by a whole range of suppliers (2000 plus and counting) who have worked through this route. That includes a high proportion of smaller companies (over 80%) which supports the government agenda to promote such firms.

Now when we first heard about this, we thought it was just a time-saving construct that helped users engage consultants quickly and get round the EU regulations, to be honest. But on speaking this week to Rob Levene, who along with Adam Jacobs founded the firm, it is clear that NEPRO / Bloom works hard and successfully to add value to the whole process of engaging and managing professional services firms.

Indeed, NEPRO has become something that looks more like a specialist procurement outsourcing service provider for the professional services category. “We aim to drive good practice amongst users – we work on the basis that the client must have a business case, a signed off budget for the work, and wherever possible, a clear set of deliverables and outcomes before we go to the market”, says Levene.  If necessary, NEPRO / Bloom helps clients get these steps in place.  (That is all arguably standard practice of course, yet we too often see consultants engaged without these elements in place!).

NEPRO / Bloom also encourages client organisations to share knowledge and information – so in one case, “we linked up a local authority that was commissioning a new sports centre with another that had done something similar a year or two back – they were able to re-use some of the design work and save tens of thousands of pounds”.

The engagement of consultants splits roughly evenly between direct awards and competed work, but even in the first case, “we will use benchmarking, past experience and negotiation to ensure the client gets a fair price”.  Bloom works to the budget given by the client, and takes its 5% fee from that amount – “we have made average savings of 19% against budget where we compete the work, something a little less where it is direct award”.

Since we first heard of NEPRO a couple of years ago, it has grown considerably. “It took almost a year to get our first client signed up”, remembers Levene, “but we now have 130 clients. Around 60% are local government organisations, but others include health, emergency services, agencies and other public bodies”. Over 2000 projects have gone through the process now, with a value of some £120 million to date.

In googling NEPRO, we came across some minutes for the Ad Hoc Scrutiny Panel for the Middlesbrough Unitary Authority, discussing consulting spend. We rather liked a number of the points that were made here -  for instance; “it was felt that if everything was secured through the NEPRO framework, it would be easier to see the exact amount of money that was being spent on consultants, as opposed to approaching each department in turn”...

All in all, this is a very interesting model, and Levene is ambitious – “we believe this could work well in the private sector and in other countries”.  He also points out how the new IR35 regulations might be an opportunity as well as a threat – we will come back to that topic shortly, and his thoughts, but for public organisations, the NEPRO solution is certainly worth looking at if you haven’t already .

First Voice

  1. Phoenix:

    It might well be compliant, but is it good professional procurement? The Regulations are intended to ensure a fair, open and transparent process. Yes, NEPRO may help run a competitive process for public authorities if they really want one, but far too many will use the process to award contracts with neither advertisement nor competition. Useful as a Get Out of Jail Free when a contract just has to be awarded and buyers have few options, but the real danger here is that budget holders will look upon this as a way to get round the rules and will want to use it routinely rather than as a last resort, giving many buyers a real headache. And NEPRO collects a hefty 5% for its trouble. That quick-and-easy compliance comes at a price.

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