Exclusive! Conservative Party procurement manifesto – ready for the 2015 election

With the next UK general election now less than a year away, and the major parties in a neck and neck position in the opinion polls, we are excited to announce that we have obtained two highly confidential leaked documents from political sources. Through the fabled Spend Matters investigative techniques of excessive alcohol, extortion, charm, and theft, we have got hold of key procurement related reports from the two main parties.

They are what we might term the "procurement manifestos", covering both historical assessment of the last five years and how that will be presented to voters, and the forward-looking proposals for the next Parliament. Next week we will feature the Labour Party documents, but this week we have the Conservative Party procurement paper. We understand this was produced for them by McKain Consultants, free of charge apparently (I wonder why)?

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Value Achieved, Growth Promoted, Promises Delivered

McKain are pleased to offer views on how “public procurement” should be presented to the electorate in May 2015 by the Party. That includes achievements during this government, and proposals for the next term. This report has been produced by several of our top partners in the procurement field, one of whom actually let a contract in 2003.

Part 1 – Achievements, 2010-15

The main focus should be on the significant savings delivered, not just procurement but the wider efficiency numbers, as evidenced by NAO audited benefits of £10 billion in 2012/13 and the recently released figures of £14 billion for 2013/14. The voting public does not understand the difference between 'demand management' and commercial value improvement, so the fact that most of the procurement savings have arisen through simply spending less because of the decline in civil service numbers should not be an issue. Labour has failed to challenge the numbers anyway, so you are on solid ground here.

You should also emphasise that you took tough decisions – would Labour have had the focus to slash spend in areas such as consulting, interim staff, recruitment? Even with the staff reductions, this required willpower and determination – qualities Labour have rarely shown in dealing with government expenditure. Francis Maude has led from the front here as the first ever Minister for Procurement.

Similarly, the move to centralise Whitehall procurement plays well with the public, although as we know, it is far from successfully embedded as yet, but there will be some evidence to support that action (even if the “benefits” from some centralised categories would not stand up to detailed scrutiny). But economy of scale is a simple concept that even the Public Accounts Committee can understand, even if it does not actually apply to much of the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) portfolio.

Whilst clearly you should not raise the fact that the plans to centralise spend from Departments are way behind schedule, the line to take, if this is raised, is that it is “work in progress” – that seems to be accepted by most voters, and actually plays to your overall message of continuity (“don’t ruin everything by electing those idiots again”). And talking about inertia and how hard it is to change the mindset of civil servants excuses some of the obvious failings to date.

We are all also aware that there is no chance of hitting the original 25% of government spend target for use of SMEs (small businesses). But the clever way in which Mr Maude re-framed the challenge - as an 'aspiration" and including spend in the supply chain - means that we should be able to show some progress again in 2013/14. And of course the data for 2014/15 will not be available pre-election, so the likely failure to achieve 25% will not be exposed.

Rather than focusing on that target however, we suggest that you stress the actions you have taken to support SMEs. The PQQ purge, the work of the Mystery Shopper service, Contracts Finder and other positive steps mean you can honestly claim to have done more for SMEs than any previous government in terms of public procurement. Even miserable, carping cynics such as the Spend Matters website have been largely positive about such moves.

Your stance of criticising large firms, particularly in areas such as IT, and the actions taken against firms such as G4S and Serco, are achievements that should be stressed very strongly. Whilst some of the wilder anti-supplier rhetoric may not be helpful longer term, your actions brilliantly defused the opportunity for the opposition to claim that you were favouring the 'fat cat' large firms. You can point to CEOs losing their jobs, quite rightly, because of their firms’ poor performance in terms of public sector business. You are on the side of the consumer, the small firm, the taxpayer.

Similarly, the G-Cloud is an initiative that ticks many boxes; supporting innovative small firms, streamlining procurement practices, and looking to break the oligopoly of the large and expensive IT providers. It’s effect in real terms has been tiny, but it has been a bold and successful initiative, and has a significance in terms of the forward looking Conservative message (see part 2).

In terms of risk areas, you are fortunate in that an opposition that has seemed largely disinterested in public procurement (although there were initial signs that Michael Dugher might be more interested than his predecessor). Labour has even failed to make capital of some areas where problems were more obvious.

The West Coast Rail fiasco, the collapse of the MOD government owned contractor operated idea and the convoluted model proposed in its place, and the lack of commercial skills exposed in a number of cases, could have been exploited by a more switched-on opposition. You are weak if these were attacked in the election campaign - but you have some defence. The Commissioning Academy is an example of a very limited initiative that nonetheless can be wheeled out regularly as a general purpose fig-leaf to cover criticism on any skills issue.

On balance, we are confident that your track record on savings, on supporting small business and making serious attempts to help them deal with public procurement, and indeed positive work on the new EU Regulations (even if that is too esoteric for most voters), all put you in a good position when your record is challenged, as it no doubt will be.

(Tomorrow - the future under the Conservatives).

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