The UK political opposition has been ineffective in demonstrating procurement competence or even interest

These days, there is virtually no ideological difference between the three main UK political parties. I say that as someone who was brought up in the North-East coalfield, my grandfather a miner, then was a founder member of the SDP in 1981 and voted for Michael Gove at the last election. Unaligned, I think is the word.

But today there are only negligible  differences between the major parties on what could be differentiating issues. Nuclear weapons and defence or foreign policy generally;  immigration; public ownership of key assets; economic management generally; the balance between generations - really there isn’t much difference.

So the two issues that underpin much of the voter perception are competence and fairness. Or looking at it another way, do voters turn those factors around to unfairness and incompetence and decide to vote against a party on those criteria  as much as they vote positively for anyone?

Let's leave unfairness aside for now, other than to say that one person' s unfairness is another's  wisdom of Solomon - witness the public support for some of the Coalition benefit cuts. But competence is a little more objective, and we might consider that spending the money that government receives is an absolutely fundamental aspect of competence.

Now, depending exactly how we count it, something around 30% of government revenues are spent with third party suppliers. And if we exclude pensions and benefits, which probably fall more  into the “fairness” bucket when voters think about them, then third party spend is probably more like half of total addressable spend.

This all leads to the hypothesis that procurement is an absolutely key indicator of government competence. Even if much of that money is actually spent by schools, hospitals, police forces and local authorities, we might expect our government to take a lead in ensuring that this is spent wisely.

The Coalition has certainly placed considerable focus on this area. Francis Maude, love him or hate him, has been the most informed and active Minister in terms of procurement that we have ever seen in the UK. The centralising procurement initiatives, "Lean" procurement, the potential GoCo for the MOD's Defence Equipment and Support organisation and other ideas have demonstrated the intent here, even if we might disagree with some of the policies and ideas.

But the Labour Party opposition has largely failed to oppose or to offer much criticism, alternatives or commentary on the coalition government’s actions and policies in the procurement space.  There has  been little reasoned opposition to some of Maude's actions - and clearly there are opposing points that could be made and defended, whatever we might think of the rights and wrongs of the current approaches.

Why not promote local sourcing rather than centralisation? Why not pick up on Maude’s comments at PASC that he doesn’t believe in “policy through procurement” and his failure to use social value in procurement decisions in the way Wales has done?   Why not mobilise support against the MOD GoCo?  Or pick up on how the numbers of procurement people are falling dramatically just as the need to manage expenditure better is growing and growing? (I’m not saying all of these are ideas I would support, but they are feasible alternatives to current policy).

But there appear to be no different ideas, nothing on the procurement front really coming from the Labour side. Public sector procurement is more important than ever, so don’t we deserve at least some political challenges to the government’s approach?

Voices (4)

  1. Mike:

    Peter – I’m as surprised as a Miliband by the question of why Labour has failed to criticise government action and policies on Procurement.

    Poor Ed would be as mystified as I am about why he should care about something that Labour had given a good seeing to during its extended tenure. A spin through HM Treasury Newsroom and Speeches from April 2009 fronting the launch of the Operational Efficiency Review tells you all you need to know. Everything was in hand – £15 billion savings from back office operations and IT, collaborative procurement, asset management and so on. With £6 billion of that getting delivered during that CSR – as OEP pointed out additional savings of ‘around’ £5 billion were getting delivered by April 2011 and another £9 billion sure to be trousered by UK plc before this year is up, what’s the problem? Collaboration and local incentives? Nailed already.

    Labour jaws must have hit the floor when the current lot had the sheer nerve to start commissioning their own reviews. What was Green on about? It’s like the last 10 years never happened. Next they’ll be telling us that we never left the country in clover! Ungrateful or what?

    The reason why Ed’s not engaging is because he doesn’t understand the question – or not at least beyond the line he’s been fed. Procurement? Been there, done it, got the T-shirt. If the coalition wants to play at it then let ‘em.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got Fag Packetgate to worry about. Now that’s what I call real opposition business.

  2. Dave Orr:

    Party funding from “donations” rots out doing “good civil business” for all political parties.

    As long as have political parties being funded by sectional and commercial interests, then we will never get the sort of professionalism and impartiality that you desire in principle Peter (BTW – Good for you for keeping your ideals from 1981).

    Large TUs, big companies, especially multinationals, can “buy” influence through party funding, MP funding, so called “think tanks”, lobbying, posts on Boards via “revolving doors”)when Ministers & senior Civil Servants “retire”.

    We now have the scenario that if G4S are found to have over-charged “us” fraudulently, then a guilty Director (close your eyes & imagine accountability) could be transported to & from court, held in custody, tagged and imprisoned by……G4S!

    Get Private Eye every two weeks and the torrent of conflicts of interest and iffy stuff abounds. Eyes Passim!

    I have “a cunning plan” that I may email to each party leader (or is that “a thought provoking essay”) about a democratised form of state funding:

    Give every registered voter £1 that they can allocate once every 4 years in 25p chunks to the party of their choice i.e. £1 to a single party or multiple allocations.

    A small turnout or apathy drops income so would we get better efforts from “them”?

    Allows for new party funding (remember the SDP in 1981 or Greens or UKIP now).

    Then ban all sectional and commercial funding of parties, including lobbyists etc.

    Simples!

  3. Dan:

    Personally I think that most modern politicians don’t really have any principles and will, by and large, just follow any course of action that has traction with the voters. They’re not going to put time and resources into a plan of action that voters don’t care about – such as procurement. They’ll only do this once there are headlines about unwise spending (the closest we’ve had is the furore over ‘Jonny Foreigner getting the train contract’, which is unhelpful at best)

  4. Sam Unkim:

    Hot News: Production line Cabinet’s all with the same opinion !!

    Its pretty hard, to get an informed debate started, when they all studied “Politics, Philosophy & Economics (PPE) together at the University of Oxford.

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