Sustainable Procurement – has UK Government interest waned?

We’ve covered the recent report from the UK National Audit Office on “Improving government procurement” in some depth, but they also recently issued a briefing on sustainable procurement. And it’s a bit of a depressing read for anyone committed to the sustainability agenda, to be honest. We should stress that it is not a full investigative report though - as NAO explains:

This briefing has been prepared in response to a request from the Environmental Audit Committee for an update on the Government's sustainable procurement commitments and its progress against those commitments.

What comes across is that this area has suffered from the resource cutbacks in government (yes, I know, that is needed to try and address the UK’s huge budget deficit). That has shifted procurement attention very strongly onto cost reduction and savings. Just as a aside, have you ever heard Francis Maude, the “Minister for Public Procurement”,  mention sustainable procurement? That probably indicates something about priority.

We’ve got some sympathy with the pressure government procurement is under, although if you read the material we've featured here from Alis Sindbjerg Hemmingsen (our favourite “responsible procurement” expert),  she would no doubt say that sustainability can, and indeed should, go hand in hand with value for money.

But the Green Government Unit and the post of Chief Sustainability Officer in Cabinet Office were abolished in 2011, and then you can imagine the message this sort of communication sends and how it would be received:

In December 2012, the Cabinet Office Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, wrote to departments to emphasise the importance of value for money in public procurement. The letter informs departments that they should only pursue wider policy objectives where they are directly relevant to what is being procured.

Government is also supposed to be developing Government Buying Standards, which set technical specifications and contract award criteria for a wide range of products and services, But:

DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has made slower progress than expected in developing new Government Buying Standards and updating the existing standards.  And:

There has been limited monitoring of the extent to which departments' procurement has met Government Buying Standards.

On the positive side, To assist departments with this, (the “Greening Government Commitments”) the Government Procurement Service has made a number of supply chain tools available for departments to track their impacts.

You’re getting the picture? DEFRA really don’t seem to be taking much of a lead here, and GPS have done a certain amount, but sustainability  generally is taking a back seat to cost reduction.  (Many readers will have seen this I’m sure in their own organisations, public or private, when the going gets tough). Here's more from the report:

Departments' procurement and sustainability practitioners told us that frequent changes in the governance arrangements for sustainable procurement had resulted in increased uncertainty over requirements and difficulty in finding relevant guidance. Some also felt that they required a stronger central mandate to help them encourage adoption of sustainable procurement within their departments. They reported little sharing of information and resources between departments…In May 2012, DEFRA established a Practitioners' Forum and, in July 2012, relaunched the Sustainable Procurement Project Board to facilitate the sharing of experience and good practice.

Because it is a briefing note, NAO doesn’t make firm recommendations, but gives a list of points the Committee might like to consider is given. They’re all sensible, such as -

…whether the Government Procurement Service and departments should do more to measure and report their progress towards meeting the Greening Government Commitment to buy more sustainable and efficient products and engage with suppliers to understand and reduce the impacts of its supply chain, and, if so, how this can be achieved

But it does strike me that this will only really get traction if the case is made – as Alis does so well – that sustainability shouldn’t be seen as something that is opposed to cost reduction. Rather, it should be an integral part of that broad conversation about value for money in its truest sense.

First Voice

  1. North of the Border:

    Worth taking a look at the Scottish Model of public sector procurement, based around a “value for money triangle” of cost, quality and sustainability, with one of its strategic priorities as being to embed the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability at the heart of the procurement process. Maybe this focus on the broader economic impact of procurement spend is one reason why SMEs get over 45% of public sector procurement spend in Scotland and win over three quarters of the contracts advertised on the Public Contracts Scotland portal.

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