Local Government Procurement – Communities and Local Government Committee

Another UK government committee is looking at public procurement – this time it is the Communities and Local Government Committee looking at procurement in their area, covering councils of various sorts (county, district, unitary etc.)

So on Monday in one session (you can watch it here) there were some interesting dynamics between the three witnesses, all representatives of collaborative procurement bodies. Note that this isn’t a verbatim record – more my impressions!

The first question was “how many councils are best practice”? (Questions from the Committee will be in italics.)

Ian Taylor (runs NEPO,  collaborative body owned by 12 authorities in North East) said there were different approaches, levels of competence.

Ed Walsh (director of ESPO, another collaborative body but one that runs warehouses, trucks etc. in the East of England.)  Been some poor outsourcing – even involving removal of the client function. Not enough collaboration. Too many conflicting issues – localism reduce the benefits of centralisation.

Mark Robinson, (Scape, Midlands based collaboration in construction)  Profile of procurement not high enough. Not making use of tools.

Can LGA (the local government association) or others do more?

Walsh – too much risk aversion, fear of challenge.

Taylor – LGA work underway, national procurement strategy on energy etc. Things are moving, not fast enough.  RIEPS would have done this. Bit of hiatus since they got killed off, LGA stepping in. Also SOPO. Not enough being done to encourage local authorities to participate.

Robinson – local government knows the issues, not radical enough. If serious about collaboration, let’s just do it now.

What are the potential savings?

Walsh – billions.

Taylor – but spend unpredictable, spend declining just through cuts, not clear what the “pot” is, but there are significant sums to save through collaboration and other routes.

Robinson – 14% savings through his frameworks.

How do we move to new world?

Taylor – each local authority has its own proprieties, style etc. Can’t impose on them – that’s against the whole way public sector going e.g. independence in health, schools etc. But consortia can work harder to deliver deals. Some categories aren’t naturally collaborative – need to see what works.

Robinson – need single team to do local government procurement. Or hubs. Get consistency. Can’t do it in a nice collaborative way.

Taylor – we’ve done the analysis. Only 10-15% can be bought nationally. 25% regionally. 50% is local.

(Hooray! The voice of reason. Interesting tension between Taylor and Robinson, who to me came over as  too simplistic in his views on collaboration and appeared to be very much arguing his case as a collaborative body. Walsh was pro more collaboration but came over as more measured, Taylor had the most strategic view).

Walsh said in his written evidence “LAs  far too precious about own local standards”. Explain?

Walsh – reluctance to change. ESPO members, each authority had 90 suppliers of furniture. Rationalise choice.  Wheeled bins – why different colours? Could just have different coloured tops. Frameworks still in vogue, could do better with commitment.

Why does the UK procurement processes take longer than in other countries?

 (nb This much quoted “fact” actually relates to 2006-10. But everyone is treating it like it is true today – I’m sure the UK has got better in this area).

Taylor - People are afraid of failure. We take a more purist approach to the directives perhaps in the UK.

Would it be better to have more informality in the process?

All  – We do try and engage in advance, that is good practice etc .

Well of course we should engage, but we can’t just talk to one chosen supplier!  No, I tell you what, let’s just speak to your brother’s construction company, Mr Politician. Market contact is fine but it has to be done fairly and transparently, otherwise the Private Eye “Rotten Boroughs” column will take over the whole magazine...

More in part 2 when we find out what made the Committee go crackers....

Voices (3)

  1. Ian Taylor:

    In reply to Dave there were written submissions to the Committee on outsourcing and the risks involved (particulalry from Unison). But our session was about collabortaive procurement and it was a challenge to get in even some of the messages I was personally keen to promote beyond that. In fact I did want to make more of the fact that its social care that will be the main area of spend and we have barely begun to understand how to add value in a category with such a rapidly changing policy agenda, cuts and rising demand.

  2. Dave Orr:

    No mention of failing shared services in the outsourced joint ventures e.g. Beds, Bucks, Suffolk, Liverpool, Birmingham and of course here in Somerset (controversial South West One JV with IBM). Let’s “move on” then?

    No mention either of savings available by simply being one organisation i.e. moving to unitary councils in areas with two tiers of Councils (County Council plus District Councils)?

    Below grazing sheep to save mowing costs, Eric Pickles listed as No.115 (of 201 savings ideas) the unitary option:

    “115 Would it make sense for a county council and its constituent districts to form a unitary authority? Councillors in Wiltshire have said this has saved a fortune through efficiency savings.”

    Peter: As Councils are cut more & more (much more than central Government) then how about listing statutory services i.e. things Councils have to do by law & are effectively “core services” e.g. supporting people with Learning Difficulties, Social care of children, elderly & vulnerable, highways, libraries, Rights of Way etc?

  3. Nicholas Martin:

    Thanks Peter.

    It is really interesting to get this summary.

    It does seem like the procurement people ‘on the ground’ in Local Government have a challenge on their hands. They need to make savings, adhere to legislation, follow best practice AND not end up in Private Eye!

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