Fire Services Procurement – A Lost Cause Without Senior Buy-in

Procurement strategy must be aligned with the broader business strategy. I would assume that is lesson 1 in the MCIPS Procurement strategy module. Everybody nods. Yet we keep going round in circles in certain parts of the public sector. We featured the report on procurement in the Fire Service here, and the “something must be done” comments from the Minister for Diving (and Fire Services), Penny Mordaunt.

As we said, there is some sensible stuff in the report. But the big question is this. Why on earth do we need 46 separate fire services across England? It’s ridiculous. Each with their own Chief Fire Officer or CEO, their own management structure, their own HR, Finance and procurement teams – although in the case of procurement, the “team" may well be literally a couple of people.

The organisations, with one or two exceptions, are seriously sub-scale – I’m not a great centraliser by nature but here is one case where really, we should have a national or at least a regional structure. Many of the services have an external spend of less than £10 million a year – you can’t build a serious procurement function when you are that size.

PA Consulting were clearly stuck with the brief for this report. Previous collaboration efforts in the Fire Service failed (e.g. Firebuy), so there was no appetite for a whole new organisation. No appetite either for mandating central buying , compulsion or anything like that. No appetite for biting the bullet and saying that it is ridiculous for England to have 46 separate Fire Authorities!

But instead of taking on that elephant in the room, the report focuses on procurement collaboration, which is virtually impossible as long as you have 46 Chiefs who will all want a say in the exact design of “standard fireman trousers.”  The chances of the proposed voluntary collaboration succeeding seem minimal to me. Procurement staff numbers have also been reduced because of the funding squeeze, and in terms of driving change, as the report says, procurement staff have little real power or even influence.

While procurement staff recognised the commercial levers needed to improve outcomes, their influence at a strategic level was limited They saw operational and financial benefits that would come from working across fire and rescue authorities more – from tendering , driving prices through increased competitive tension, a standardised set of specifications and taking a single approach to leasing or purchase – but didn’t have the influence at a senior level to take these improvements forwards.

So PA did what they could in the report, with yet another collaboration approach, with collaborative groups, detailed category plans, the idea of two full-time resources to co-ordinate the whole programme. It’s a decent piece of work, all good thinking, but all very much within the constraints placed on the possible recommendations.

Back to our starting point about strategic alignment - collaboration is just not aligned with the whole wider ethos and strategy of the 46 different organisations. Unless there is real sign up and commitment from the senior people in the fire service, this is all a waste of time – again. There will be lots of talking and nothing will come of it, a few new frameworks maybe that services will then choose whether or not they use. Suppliers will know there is a lack of real spend commitment, so don’t expect any great deals.

This looks like a kick-the-can-down-the-road report actually – again, that’s no reflection on PA, I should say. But there was another report last year from Sir Ken Knight that also said “something must be done.” Before that there were various NAO reports, Firebuy of course and no doubt other collaborative ventures in the Fire Service. What a waste of time, effort and money.

Meanwhile, no politician has the guts to say that having 46 separate fire services is ridiculous – because changing that would be just too much pain for little political gain really, so easier to just keep slicing away slowly at the budgets and keep it off the front pages. And of course the final irony is that the Minister who wrote the Foreword for the PA report, Brandon Lewis, and said “the case for change is compelling,” got moved in a reshuffle and replaced by Ms Mordaunt, who is unlikely to be in the job come next June anyway.

Is it any surprise that nothing really changes?

 

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