We love Public Sector Procurement. Really…..!

Next week, we’re  finally going to get onto some thoughts around how Bill Crothers as the new UK Government CPO might approach his challenging new role – as we promised a while ago...

However, I spoke last week to a very senior public sector procurement executive, who I‘ve known for some years now – we get on well and I have a great respect for him.

He made an interesting point. Whilst he wasn’t really having a go at me (he said) for our reporting on the recent Cabinet Office moves (the CPO and deputy CPO appointments and so on), he felt that some of our pieces didn’t make public procurement look good, and that this was a shame for the hundreds or thousands of hard-working procurement folk in the sector, many of whom are doing excellent work.

That did make me think about our approach here.  Our stance is one of independence and honesty – we have no political affiliation, and as procurement is pretty much my entire “life’s work” (as it were), I have no interest in dissing my own community for the sake of it! However, I do think that being critical when it’s deserved serves a purpose – that is, to encourage better performance.

And we are pretty much the only professional procurement commentators who really do this. It’s not Supply Management’s fault that they can’t be a bit more critical / analytical, but really, endless articles saying “company X has saved £10M through better procurement” or “Local authority Y has won some green energy procurement award” add nothing at all to our understanding of procurement, unless they are  accompanied by some questioning, analysis or (at times well-deserved) cynicism!

In the public sector, there is also a tendency for politicians these days to work on belief and feeling rather than evidence. I’m a scientist and mathematician by training, so asking “why” comes naturally. Is a standard 25% a good target for SME spend? What is the evidence that larger contracts give you lower prices? How will you manage a huge and critical outsourced contract when you don’t have the internal capability to manage much simpler commercial matters? Has eliminating PQQs for many contracts measurably saved bidders’ time?

That’s why we sometimes push and provoke. We really want to know what works in our procurement world - objectively, clearly, and evidentially.

But just as we’re more challenging than most around these things, we are also more supportive. If you remember, we were quick to have a go at the Prime Minster for calling public procurement people “Enemies of Enterprise”.  I don’t suppose he personally lost too much sleep about it, but I’ve been more vocal in supporting public sector procurement than pretty much anyone with a public platform. And incidentally, that intervention came at some quite significant personal cost – as I will reveal one day perhaps!

Anyway, I’m starting to sound defensive, which wasn’t the idea of this. It was really just to say I have a huge interest in public sector procurement and I just want it to be as good as it can be. I’ve said before that much of it, in my opinion, compares well with most private sector procurement, and where I’m being critical, it is always in the interest of wanting it to be better – as a taxpayer, a procurement person and an advocate for the profession.

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Voices (6)

  1. Bex:

    Peter, don’t waste your time questioning and defending SM’s approach to communicating procurement news; ( which in our office we use for improving procurement practice thank you because it is open and factual). Any tax payer should share your concerns about substance and getting it right which is far more important than whether “it looks good or not.”

  2. Life:

    This blog is the model of self control. As long as comments are constructive and thoughtful, surely this strenghtens us all? Your admission regarding “personal cost” concerns and angers me – bullying should have no place in procrement or life.

    Don’t go changing!

  3. Paul Wright:

    It is an uncomfortable fact of life that public inspection and criticsm of your activities is a better spur to improvement than positive strokes and platitudes. Uncomfortable though it is for all of us. Now there is a time and place for everything, but what better time for a balanced inspection of public procurement than during a recession? The public sector spends a large proportion of our GDP, and it is in the best interests of all that it is spent in the best possible way. What that means is up for discussion (economies of scale or stimulating small business for example).

    It may be uncomfortable for politicians and senior civil servants to have outsiders asking what they intend, what the results have been, and what they are going to do next. Particularly if the results have not been what was expected (and might in fact have been a disaster). However that external review is the basis of both good democracy and good capitalism.

    So keep up the good work!

  4. David Orr:


    Keep on “following the money”.

    It should always be about WHAT WORKS. Not from which sector (private v public) the work occurred or the structure of service delivery (think NHS reform; Joint Ventures etc) where the work takes place.

    And expecting an evidenced approach to underpin intellectual rigour can contradict “spin” & PR rhetoric gets undermined but the Spend does Matter as it clearly states on the label…..!

    Console yourself that at least you have been noticed at Cabinet level………and that Rt Hon Francis Maude may not survive the post-Olympics reshuffle.

    No end of controversial things going on: G4S Olympics contract; NHS for IT; MoD colossal waste; PFI; DEFRA Farm Payments; IBM and South West One etc etc.

    Since the banking crisis of 2008 followed by recession & stagnation then “EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT NOW” re public toleration of waste and failure – especially where poor practise goes unchallenged.

  5. Final Furlong:

    Keep it up Peter. You have many supporters. They need to be comfortable with openness and transparency in every aspect of what they do, or find a job in private sector.

  6. Dan:

    I prefer the critical articles. As someone who works in the public sector I’d rather learn from other people’s mistakes than make them myself

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