Police contract compliance – “you could go to prison for that mate”

“Policing in the 21st Century”, the report on the future of the Police Service, makes interesting reading on a number of fronts, and procurement is right up there as one of the most significant. The headlines have focused on the likely abolition of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA). I acted as the first (interim) Commercial Director for NPIA for a few months when it was first set up in 2007, and then I handed over to Sue Moffatt. She became their permanent procurement head and is still there; from what I've heard, she's done a good job given the inherent difficulty of trying to get 43 very independent police forces to work together on procurement matters.

And NPIA certainly has some areas of strength; for instance, even when I was there, we had an established and a very well regarded team looking at Fleet procurement , perceived as perhaps the strongest in the public sector. So I hope the good things will be preserved whatever happens to NPIA corporately.

But the small print of the report outlines a development that is potentially, if it happens, far more significant to public procurement (and perhaps even to the whole way the public sector is run) than whether or not a single organisation survives.  The key paragraphs are these.

4.49  The Government will therefore specify the contractual arrangements to be used by the police service to procure equipment and other goods and services. In many cases these will be arrangements put in place by central government, local government or other public bodies. In some cases where there is a need specific to the police service, where it will often be important to ensure the capability for inter-operability between forces, or no suitable contractual arrangements exist, new ones will be put in place.

4.51 We will legislate at an early opportunity to ensure a coherent basis for the Home Secretary to specify procurement arrangements to be used by the police service, and to drive the convergence of IT systems. In the meantime, in order to ensure that savings are made as soon as possible, we will take forward proposals for regulations under existing legislation to specify certain contractual arrangements to be used by the Police Service. We are publishing a more detailed consultation alongside this one on the regulations for the mandation of goods and services.

If I understand this properly, the Government is proposing to legislate to force organisations to participate in certain procurement activities and contracts.  So they might say, for instance, that there will be one single police car, or uniform contract, and it will be illegal for a police force to buy those items elsewhere! That is a pretty dramatic step when you think about it.  And never attempted before in this country as far as I know.

But perhaps Theresa May reads Supply Management or this Blog? We have been saying for some time that contracts must have committed volume to get the best value for the public sector, and this will certainly achieve that. In fact, I wrote a piece in Supply Management (with a counter view from Sue Moffatt actually) saying that the procurement strategy being proposed ealrier this year for the Police was not strong enough to deliver real benefits. Ms. May seems to agree.

However, there are issues. How will the newly created local, elected Police Commissioners take to being told what they must buy? What sanctions could actually be taken if a democratically elected Commissioner refused to buy the standard Mondeo?

When we look at the bigger picture, is this the beginning of a new model for the operation of the public sector (not just for procurement, but otehr areas potentially).  I have been amused by Eric Pickles talking about 'freeing up local government' one minute, then trying to micro-manage them the next (how much they should pay their Chief Executives, whether they should run council newspapers, etc.)  But he is wrestling with a very real issue; how do you balance localisation with the possible benefits of central efficiency in some areas?

Maybe this Police strategy indicates one option.  This could be the first blossoming of a model that gives local freedom and flexibility in many areas, encouraging innovation and citizen input, but in other areas, principally back office, procurement and so on, gives no freedom at all and says (backed by legislation) “you will do it like this”. The cynics might call this sham local democracy; others might say (and I think I would be one of them) that the economic advantages would outweigh the little bit of lost freedom around the choice of Police Cars or how the HR systems are run.

But this is something that has never been tried in the UK wider public sector, which has relied on a much fuzzier blend of some central power, exercised cautiously, limited regulation but bureaucratic 'targets' , some local freedom, and some gray areas. If we are moving into a whole new model, things are going to get interesting.

Voices (3)

  1. Drew1166:

    I agree with your analysis, and I very much much sympathise/agree with Francis M – there is definitely slack out there, and the “simple” impactful thing to do is mandate (centralise) and squeeze.

    Nonetheless the optimist in me hopes that once the reflex for “quick impact” decisions eases the Government’s stated desire/intent to act in ways consistent with subsidiarity and disintermediation will allow/necessitate something similar to what I outlined to take place.

  2. admin:

    That’s a great comment – but what I percive in the announcement is an impatience that the ‘working together’ stll doesn’t always end up with the right solutions, so hence the idea to actually “legislate compliance” to the central deals. That clearly would ” compromise the decision makers’ freedom” as you put it, and that could have interesting consequences; particularly when combined with the election of police commissioners! I can just see some maverick commissioner making a stand against these ‘centrally imposed dictats and contracts’!

  3. Drew1166:

    Peter, with regards to that tension you refer to at the end of your penultimate paragraph I think a solution would lie in local recipients of funding and the central funders:

    1) accepting the tension;
    2) working together to reach an understanding of what matters most with regards to the delivery of the local services; and then
    3) limiting the exertion of central control/mandating to spend areas that can be usefully aggregated, but that are not perceived to impinge upon the local providers necessary freedom to decide how best to meet to meet their objectives. For example, uniforms, energy, office furniture, stationery (sorry for being obvious), insurance (some of it perhaps not all), etc. are unlikely to impact upon meeting local objectives.

    With regards to the spend areas where freedom is given/allowed, guidance/information/support could be made available, and its use encouraged/rewarded, but the decision makers’ freedom to decide how to spend the money should not be compromised; people who can sell the benefits of the support etc, and who can engage intelligently with the decision makers who spend the money should also be employed.

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