NAO report on Police procurement – hello, hello, what’s all this non-collaborative behaviour, then? (Part 2)

Here is part 2 of our commentary on the National Audit Office report on Police procurement – part 1 is here.

The report doesn’t go into IT procurement in any depth as there has been a separate report on that, but it does cover the Police Marketplace, (a catalogue type marketplace and ordering resource) which doesn’t appear to have gained the traction it should have. This  national procurement hub, based on ProcServe technology, has been a major disappointment. According to the NAO, implementation costs were estimated at £7.5M, with benefits predicted to be £50 million. But so far, only 43% of Forces are using it and savings are estimated at £580K.

The Home Office now wants to make it mandatory, but (reading between the NAO lines slightly) hasn’t got a clue what “mandatory” means or how they might monitor and police police compliance!  Wouldn’t it be better for the Home Office to spend some time really getting inside just why it isn’t working as well as it might – it feels like it should be a worthwhile resource?

So my short summary is this in terms of the key procurement issues. On the positive side, to have 280 procurement professionals in the Service, with over 60% being CIPS qualified, is a big step forward compared to where Police procurement was 20 or even 10 years ago. And there is “bottom-up” collaboration emerging, with Forces working together in several regions, and strong use of collaborative deals, both police specific and wider (e.g. GPS).

But there are a couple of basic problems. There is clearly still too much variation in specification. “The NAO found at least nine separate specifications for each of five common types of equipment used by police officers, such as boots, body armour and high-visibility jackets”.

The high-visibility jackets vary in price from £20 to £100, for instance. But this isn't new - this whole problem used to amaze me when I worked in the sector. Different forces couldn’t even agree whether Police uniform trousers should or shouldn’t have front pockets! Literally. And it sounds like these things haven’t got much better in the five years or so since I had any involvement.

Secondly, the thorny issue of collaboration. The Home Office (struggling anyway since the hasty and ill-thought through decision to kill off NPIA) has tried to mandate some activities, without having the evidence to support the mandation – so some Forces are claiming they’ve incurred additional costs. (See this very interesting article from a Chief Constable, who has mixed views about collaboration).

And as the financial squeeze tightens, it is hard to see that Police Commissioners are going to go along with that, just to support some idea of collaboration. And it’s not clear exactly what the Home Office is going to do if a Commissioner tells them to get lost in terms of using a particular contract.

I’m not a big fan of mandation or legislation. I wonder whether “naming and shaming” isn’t just as effective and a whole lot less bureaucratic? Let Spend Matters publish which forces are paying £100 for the high-visibility jackets as identified by NAO!  But there is also still more scope for collaboration, as evidenced by the NAO analysis – even where specs were comparable, prices were quite different. However, it needs to be bottom-up and driven by Forces wanting to collaborate, not mandation.

I would have liked to know whether Forces feel the abolition of NPIA has been positive or negative in terms of procurement, but I guess there was no point NAO asking, as that was a done deal. But you do get the impression of the Home Office struggling somewhat to get to grips with what they should be doing. (And the “national Police IT Company” is another fiasco emerging from the death of NPIA).

So it’s hard to see where sector procurement leadership is coming from, without an NPIA in place, or more capability and focus in the Home Office, although (as we say), the growth of qualified procurement staff is encouraging. Perhaps some of the more progressive CPOs in the sector will take on the challenge?

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