Fire Services Procurement – Potential for Collaboration, Now There’s a New Idea

Note from the Editor: when Peter wrote this I decided today was the perfect day to schedule a piece on the Fire Service -- "Remember Remember ..."

Do you ever get that déjà vu feeling? That we’ve been here before? If I ever hang up my procurement boots entirely it will be because I’ve got too tired of seeing the same things come round every few years. And here is a great example.

Apparently the fire and rescue services in England could save £18 million annually by standardising and streamlining the way they buy firefighting clothing and equipment, according to a joint research project run by PA Consulting for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Chief Fire Officers Association.

A press release on it came out from DCLG the other day – which is odd as the report first surfaced back in the Spring! Perhaps someone said to the Minister “you better say something about this.” So she has. “The case for change is compelling, says Minister and Splash! star Penny Mordaunt.

But, as we will see, saying that is very different from actually doing something about it.

The report looked at items such as protective trousers, where price varied from £125 to £274, and reckons that the service could save £18 million from a spend of £127 million in these categories. If you extended that to the entire £600 million third-party spend across the fire services then the prize would obviously be even greater.

The findings follow last year’s report by former chief firefighter Sir Ken Knight, which highlighted the scope for the services to find £200 million in savings whilst safeguarding emergency operations and protecting public safety.

I know – here’s a great idea! Why don’t we set up a central procurement unit that would do contracts for the whole Fire Service? I know, we could call it FireBuy! It would be independent, self-funding, would do great deals ... sorry, what’s that? We tried that before? And ... no ... what do you mean it was a major failure? How could that be?

Well, if you want that history, here you go – start with this from the National Audit Office which has looked at this area a number of times. Firebuy was set up because everyone knew there were potential savings and yet, it didn’t work for a number of reasons. A key one was buy-in, which we will come back to later.

Back to the PA report. The recommendations in summary are:

  • Agreeing a common classification of goods and services for 46 fire and rescue authorities and actively encourage the use of one common spend management tool
  • Building capability within agreed equipment and services, moving from over-reliance on frameworks to leveraging committed spend that drives down costs
  • Developing a dashboard indexing prices paid on specific products so that fire and rescue authorities can see what each other are spending and avoid paying more for the same product
  • Providing internal sponsorship, governance and any partnership arrangements to expedite these projects and to make speedy and effective decision making
  • Exploiting lifetime benefits through focused central efforts in managing supplier relationship and contracts
  • Developing a strategy for buying non-fire common goods and services (energy to office supplies. etc) together. There are questions to be answered in doing this. Where should individual fire and rescue authorities aggregate these demands? Should this be with local authorities, with the fire and rescue sector or with other sectors?
  • Taking forward the high-level plan in this report, and developing a national procurement pipeline plan that documents existing contract start and finish dates, schedules tendering exercises and future , large-scale procurement opportunities

That is all good stuff. But in part 2 we’ll take a look at why the chances of this getting anywhere are about the same as the proverbial snowball in hell – an appropriate metaphor for the fire services, we thought!

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Voices (4)

  1. Take Two:

    Having been involved in public sector buying for a number of years across uniformed and non-uniformed organisations, and observing the ‘failure’ of Firebuy, NHS Supplies, NHS Regional Hubs etc., at first hand as a ‘customer’, the overriding conclusion is that the commercial model used by the Government for setting up these national/regional procurement bodies is flawed at the outset. These organisations are obliged to sell themselves into what is an established ‘market’ of purchasers/infrastructure, but there is no similar mandate (at least none with any teeth) on the purchasers to engage, therefore too much effort is expended in selling the service to the potential customers, who tend to start off with the presumption that they can do it better anyway. Looking at the failures, it seems to be down to a lack of governance and direction in these organisations, due more to their focus on efforts to justify their existence, rather than making sure that what they are doing operationally is grounded in properly executed best practice. And of course, when being reported, as in the ministerial article above, there is very little said about the sucesses of the organisation, nor of how the failures are due to the fragmentation of the market caused by the lack of engagement and go-it-alone attitude of many of the potential ‘customers’.

    1. Sam.Unkim:

      By anyone’s measure NHS Supplies did not fail. It was assassinated.

  2. Secret Squirrel:

    You are kidding, surely? This is what the Minister had to say on it.

    Only last year, procurement was a matter for the brigades and closing Firebuy saved a million. How much went on paying PA for this nonsense?

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