Procurement Collaboration across South-East councils – will it work?

Last week, I facilitated the first procurement workshop held by the SE7 initiative.  With all the debate we’ve featured about centralising (or not) public sector procurement, this was timely and interesting.  SE7 is a programme of collaboration – not just in the procurement area, but more generally -  between seven local authorities in the south-east of England: Brighton & Hove, East and West Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Medway, and Surrey.  Between them, those authorities are home to over 10% of England’s population, and, I suspect, spend  around £3 billion a year on third party goods and services.

The meeting was hosted by Surrey, in lovely Woking, with all seven authorities well-represented, and it was good to see the positive spirit of the 50 participants. We had category leads there for all the major spend areas – property, highways, waste, social care, corporate and IT – plus some of the procurement systems, strategy and leadership type executives as well.

It was interesting to find out from various discussions how many people have come in from outside the authorities over the last 3 years or so, often from the private sector. Kent have built a new procurement team for instance over the last couple of years, and Surrey have recruited actively and dynamically in that time. (The same may well apply elsewhere, I just didn’t have time to talk to everyone)! So  it was a more diverse group in terms of background than I expected, and more so than you would see at a similar central government gathering I suspect. That drawing in of different experience should be a real positive as the group moves into collaborative mode.

Andrew Forzani, Surrey’s Head of Procurement, has been leading the procurement workstrand but he’s moving on to DWP, so a new lead will be appointed shortly. The aim of the day though was to generate real interest and to get cross-authority category groups established and motivated to take on the challenges.

Lee Banner is the overall programme manager for SE7, and he highlighted just how important procurement is to the overall initiative. When you look at the areas of focus, virtually all of them involve a major procurement element. Clearly, you can’t seriously address highways, property, IT, shared services or social care from a general collaborative angle without major procurement involvement.

We had an interesting debate about governance – Forzani favours a fairly “light touch”, so the hope is that the category groups will drive initiatives without a lot of pushing from the centre. Indeed, the centre in terms of the SE7 overall programme is pretty virtual! There did seem to be the energy and desire in this session to make things happen, but we all know how easy it is to get caught up in the local priorities once you’re back in your own office, so I suggested that the heads of function would need to put a certain amount of reporting and monitoring in place to encourage progress at that category level.

There are undoubtedly opportunities however. Data is potentially a powerful driver and tool, so getting some common spend analytics across the SE7 is likely to be important, and I would hope the group will make that a priority. Then, even before they look at tools such as new aggregated deals, we might hope that  simply benchmarking and comparing best practice and commercial details across the group will drive all the authorities towards the performance of the “best”.

There was also a positive openness to using wider contacts, such as those put in place by the Government Procurement Service. Historically, I’ve been at similar meetings where that wouldn’t have been well accepted as a strategy, but it was to the credit of the teams here – and how GPS has developed – that this was seen as a sensible approach where the spend is covered by appropriate GPS contracts.

I also met an old NatWest colleague I haven’t seen for years, now working at Kent, and met several folk I’m LinkedIn with but have never met, which was a pleasure. So it was a good day on several levels for me – but most importantly, it suggested that there is a genuine appetite for collaboration in public procurement. However, you can see the inevitable challenges even with just seven authorities, pretty well-aligned politically as well. So it also highlights the need for collaboration to be at an appropriate and manageable level, and to gain wide buy-in.

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