A victory for transparency…and a warning for public sector procurement?

"Organisations tend to be less stupid when they know the public can see how stupid they are." - Nick Booth, Podnosh

Four years ago I was part of an HMG team trying to persuade 43,000 UK public sector organisations to save vast sums of money through buying collaboratively.   Our crusade wasn't exactly an enormous success: simply because back in 2007 saving money wasn't even in the top fifty list of Government priorities. A less sexy agenda it's hard to imagine: back then, noone really gave a fig how money was being spent in the nooks and crannies of the wider public sector: not the media, nor the public, nor local authorities and nor even, frankly, our own Treasury ministers.

Fast forward four years past the financial crisis, the MPs expenses scandal, a general election and Eric Pickles.  Saving money  - or at least, spending money responsibly and accountably - is now top of everyone's agenda. And with the help of the Coalition Government's transparency and open data policy and the huge power of new social media tools and platforms, it has never been easier for the curious or the crusading to find out how much is being spent, and what on.   Today, an ordinary member of the public probably has access to more and better spend information than a senior civil servant sitting in the Office of Government Commerce would have done just a year or two ago.

Whether or not this new transparency is a good thing, however, all depends on who you are and what kind of procurement crimes you may have committed in the last few years.

As the London Borough of Barnet Council recently discovered...when a group of dogged local "citizen" bloggers managed to unearth evidence  - through FOI requests and Companies House searches - of Barnet Council's rather dodgy "relationship" with a security firm called MetPro (now out of business).  Last week the findings of an internal audit were announced:  including the troubling revelation that the council had spent £1.3 million with MetPro with no tendering exercise, no written contract or SLA, no formal authorisation, no proper invoicing... thus violating just about every CPR that Barnet had.

Cue some serious questions about Barnet's finance, audit and procurement processes, and some serious embarrassment for the cabinet and senior officers of this so-called "flagship council: especially so given Barnet is one of the councils planning mass outsourcing of services imminently.

My hunch is that there are two reasons this happened. One, Barnet's service teams and procurement teams aren't talking to each other.  Two, Barnet's procurement team made classic mistakes that could easily have been avoided with a proper central contracts register (which Barnet doesn't have) and some basic supplier intelligence homework (which many local authorities skip through "lack of time"). Barnet didn't do even the most basic of checks before engaging MetPro: financial, criminal, health and safety, nada.  Noone ever picked up that services procured locally with 3 different MetPro trading names were actually all with the same vendor. And corporate procurement only kept a list of the top ten vendor names by spend for each category, not all vendors over tender limits

In the bigger picture, however, this is a wake up call for procurement everywhere. Organisations need to be constantly vigilant that their procurement processess are both A) appropriate and B) being followed - because if they are not, someone else is going to point it out for them, potentially causing huge damage to corporate, political and personal reputations.  There are many communities of developers and digital activists making huge progress cleaning, sorting and making sense of the spend data tsunami coming out of central and local government: such as LinkedGov and Openly Local . For journalists (whether professional or citizen), this stuff is a hundred Christmases come at once. Ominously for Barnet,  the call has already gone out via Twitter for more developers, researchers and digital campaigners to help examine the rest of the council's spending to see if there are any more MetPros on the books.

And just in case you're reading this blog from an ivory tower in the private sector, thanking your lucky stars no FOI requests will be coming your way, think again.  As outsourcing of public services accelerates, the Government is clearly hoping that greater transparency will protect the public against poor value, ill thought through contracts with private sector firms (PFI, anyone?) It is only a matter of time (one more Southern Cross?) before transparency requirements are extended in some shape or form to private firms which provide public services.

Alex Ranson, our social media expert, can be contacted at alex@beaglethinking.com and follow her on Twitter @beaglethoughts)

Voices (3)

  1. Mrs Angry's web monitor:

    You need to fix the link above on “embarassment”.

    1. Peter Smith:

      done! thank you for spotting…
      It’s a hell of a story – we may well come back to it here..

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