Politics and Procurement – UK Style

This afternoon, Spend Matters would like to welcome back our UK and European Correspondent, Peter Smith.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jason for the first time on his recent trip to the UK, and I was trying to explain to him our rather strange UK political process, which means we know there will be an election before the middle of June -- but we don't know when as of yet.

"Why don't you just have a set date for it?" he asked, and I admit I struggled for an answer. Everybody always gets into a state of over-excitement until the announcement finally comes, and then a sense of anti-climax dawns.

We have had a rash of policy announcements from the opposition Conservative party over the last couple of weeks in readiness for the event. And strangely, virtually every one had a significant procurement / supply chain connection or implication.

The most significant was the proposal to publish in full all government contracts for over £25,000. David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, added to this by saying that local government would have to publish all spend (which presumably includes contracts) over £500. I'm not clear why local and central government should have different rules, and £500 seems a very low level. I blogged about this here, and it provoked a lot of discussion on LinkedIn forums. As a taxpayer, I'm a big supporter of transparency, and this feels like a good move in many ways, but...I do have concerns about the practicality and the consequences. How many more procurement people will be needed to extract the really confidential stuff that I don't believe suppliers will ever agree to publishing; and how many will be needed to handle all the queries and complaints that will arise once contracts are published? (Apparently, Sweden has had this in place for some time -- I'm very interested in hearing viewpoints from any Swedish readers in terms of how it has worked).

Another announcement covered an encouragement for public sector staff to set up "workers co-operatives." Yes, it is interesting that our supposedly "right wing" party is suggesting this -- a sign of how old left / right definitions don't work particularly well today. But there has been a lack of clarity around the market structures, a clarity that will be needed to make this work. If my local employment office or a hospital department becomes a self- managing co-op, we must have some sort of market process by which they can be rewarded if they do a great job, or through which they can lose the work if they don't. Anyway, that sounds like another potential major initiative for public sector procurement folk to get stuck in if the Conservatives win.

Finally, we had the idea that advertising firms that are involved in ad campaigns that "sexualised children" would be banned from Government contracts. This leads to an interesting debate about how easy it is (or is not) to "ban" firms. My understanding is that it is not easy -- something born out by the report of the US Government looking at Blackwater and whether banning that firm would be desirable or possible. For what it's worth, I think it most unlikely that this policy will be implemented in the UK, as I just do not think EU procurement regulations will allow it.

Anyway, more on the election to come I'm sure, and I plan to comment on the main parties' manifestos (from a procurement standpoint) when they are published.

Peter Smith

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