UK public procurement – why so slow, asks Ian Makgill of Spend Network

We’re pleased to feature a guest post from Ian Makgill. I’ve  been doubtful in the past about some reports that suggested public procurement in the UK was slower than in other countries. However,  Ian’s firm  Spend Network, whose business is analysing government spend data, ids producing real evidence based work. Over to you, Ian... 

Our analysis of EU tender timeframes has highlighted the poor performance of UK buyers when it comes to tendering. According to our findings, the UK public sector is the third slowest tenderer in Europe, with only Greece and Ireland taking longer to complete OJEU tenders.

You can see the findings here: and you can also download our data to check the findings for yourself.

When we first got the results, I did a double-take and immediately ran the figures again - I was sure that we had made a mistake. Repeated checks showed that our findings were correct. If you start a tender on the 1st of January in the UK, it is likely to be awarded on August the 29th. That's later than Portugal, Spain or Italy.

The comparison with other countries has been the striking element of our analysis; the UK is slower than countries that have faced far more aggressive austerity drives and we're slower than Belgium, a country that had no government for two years. We're also a long way from the states like Germany, that we would view as our natural competitors and light years away from the Poles, who take just 70 working days to complete a tender.

We have, inevitably, been trying to understand what is making us slow. TED (Tenders Electornic Daily) data can't provide this information, so we're having to do some qualitative work to find out the cause of the delays. So far, we know that delays come from a wide range of sources, and that it is wrong to simply blame the procurement profession. Tenders can be ground to a standstill by legal disputes, design problems, planning issues and technical interdependencies, none of which are the fault of procurement teams. However, it does seem that tender complexity is an issue, with tenders taking too long to complete and too long to evaluate.

Whatever the problems are, we now know that these same problems are being managed better in Italy, Germany and Poland. A sad, but natural conclusion, is that we have chosen to make our tenders slow. Obviously, we're not talking about a conscious choice, rather it is the result of a series of decisions built up over decades, which have combined to create a burdensome bureaucratic environment, which is difficult to navigate, has multiple interdependencies and favours large corporates with big bid teams and deep pockets.

If the cause of slow tendering is deeply ingrained in our public sector culture, I suspect that it will be very difficult to speed up tenders and that any attempt to force buyers to do so may have perverse consequences. Despite this, our figures show that something must be done to find a way to get tenders completed faster and to ensure that our UK public sector purchasing does not create unnecessary barriers to smaller businesses.

Voices (5)

  1. Ian Makgill:

    Hi Dave / Stephen,

    I don’t know whether the Eastern Bloc have different technology, but we’ve seen a very significant increase in time taken by the Czech Rep. which would imply that it isn’t a technical advantage, rather it is practical advantage. However, I’m nervous about trying to highlight the succession economies as an appropriate goal for us to evaluate, the potential for differences in practices between ex-communist countries and our own seem unlikely to generate a huge amount of insight.

    However, Germany and other rival territories look like the places where we can learn most. As you say, it may be that having a team of lawyers is the answer, I don’t know but I do feel that it is worth exploring.

    Dave, you question whether slow tendering is such a bad thing, I’ve been stunned by how many people have raised this since the report was published. Yes it absolutely is a bad thing. It is a bad thing because it costs the state, with extra unnecessary work, but mostly it makes it hard for SMEs to compete for contracts in Government. If you have to carry the cost of supply for 172 days, you have to have deep pockets, if it is human skills, it is particularly costly because you have to pay wages for 9 months before you get any cash into your business. 172 days isn’t a trifling annoyance, it is a chasm.

  2. Stephen Heard:

    Interesting analysis which beggars several questions.

    The first is how prevalent are eCommerce systems in other EU countries particularly those emerging from the old Soviet block who I suspect started anew with dynamic purchasing systems rather than working in the UK with antiquated and out dated manual systems. The wholesale use of electronic systems would by the very nature of the EU compliant timeline be short anyway?

    The second question is how many of these quick procurement’s result in a legal challenge. I remember years ago when I was at Buying Solutions we had an exchange agreement with the Italian government. I was astounded on a visit to Rome to see one floor of their public procurement facility filled with lawyers yet we had one legal assistant. So does the involvement of legal advice every step of the way shorten the process?

    The third point, and I’ve noticed this in the NHS, is the emergence of the competitive dialogue route as public sector organisations want to use the procurement process to drive transformational change led by the supply side. By its very nature this process is time consuming as the dialogue sessions add weeks if not months to the process.

  3. Dave Mischief:

    Is this necessarily a bad thing? Do we plan and execute things properly with due care and attention? In my experience the majority of tenders are to replace ones that are expiring rather than brand new requirements – do we just start them earlier?

    The other issue for many public organisations is the level of reporting and scrutiny from management and within Local Governement Members which holds up the award process.

    I would be interested how the Poles manage to award in 70 days, using an Open process that’s 40 days minimum and then if the standstill period of 10 days is included (a debate on what is the award date bekons!) thats 50 days, so to evaluate and everything else in 20 days seems a little fanciful especially if this is the average timescale so they must have a number of tenders which are longer than this and therefore a number which are shorter………..

  4. Ian Makgill:

    Hi Dan,

    We don’t account for cultural differences in the analysis. Ex communist Governments appear to be faster at issuing tenders than Western European Governments, this may not be a good thing. There are other potential factors as well, such as the value of currencies reducing the number of tenders as the threshold is much higher.

    All of which deserves further attention. The problem is that on average, we’re still a full 53 days slower than Germany for our tenders. It is possible that the UK indulges in more complex tenders than our German counterparts, or that our procurement functions are understaffed in comparison to our Italian counterparts, but our contention is that these are issues under our control and shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘part of doing business with government’.

  5. Dan:

    Have you factored in an allowance for differing national characteristics?

    For example:

    Is there a higher use of the restricted procedure in western Europe than elsewhere due to better developed supply markets?

    Does the UK public sector tends to contract out more than other European countries (who tend to do more in-house), thus meaning than UK procurement bods are more over-worked?

    Is there a more litigious society in the UK that could increase the likelihood of legal challenge and mean more legal consultation when writing and evaluating tenders?

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