PASC report (Public Administration Select Committee) on public procurement – our full review

We featured the UK parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee report when it was issued a few weeks back but our detailed review got overtaken somewhat by other public sector news like the Health procurement strategy and David Smith’s retirement!

One comment made since publication was the lack of any practitioners from government departments giving evidence. I kicked myself when I read this - of course, it's a great point and we should have made it here. My only defence is it is hard to know who is going to be called as witnesses until the review is complete, so at what stage does it become clear that there is a gap? Anyway, a well-made point. And finally, here is our more detailed look at the PASC findings.

- To kick off, it was surprising to see how open the Minister, Francis Maude, was to the Committee about his lack of support for using public procurement to support wider economic and social aims. I know where he is coming from, but I'm amazed that the Labour party hasn't made more of this. The PASC recommendation hedges its bets, suggesting more work be done rather than definite action.

Cabinet Office should bring forward proposals as to how it can ensure that proper consideration is given to the potential to promote the UK economy in all government procurement exercises, without losing sight of the fundamental purpose of procurement regulation: to get best value for the taxpayer....Cabinet Office should provide guidance to government departments on how to use the scope within the existing EU procurement directives to maximise value for the UK economy, for example through greater use of appropriate contract performance measures.

- The Committee said the right things around the small supplier agenda, and picked up on the point we've made previously about dodgy classification of suppliers.

We are also concerned at the apparent weaknesses in the Government’s data on the level of spending with SMEs. Government must improve its data on spending with small businesses. The Cabinet Office should publish regular quarterly updates on progress towards its “aspiration” of 25% by value of government contracts being won by SMEs, giving a clear indication of how it has defined a small and medium-sized business and how reliable the data are.

- In terms of skills, the Committee thinks Cabinet Office should publish a training plan - absolutely right! It was interesting to see the focus on capability in the recent health procurement strategy - not delivered yet of course - compared to the weak approach that Cabinet Office has taken. A day or two “Lean training” and.. err, thats it really. And they can't have their cake and eat it. If the official line is that Commissioning is a different "profession",  then they can hardly argue that the Commissioning Academy is developing procurement skills!

It  (Cabinet Office) should publish a procurement training plan demonstrating how it will increase the understanding of procurement issues among civil servants engaged in policy development.

- There are also sensible recommendations around getting a clearer picture of procurement resource, including SROs of major procurement projects. But we can't blame the Cabinet Office over the slowness of this - it looks like departments dragging their feet.

The Cabinet Office database should include all key procurement positions and functions in the Civil Service. The database should be updated each quarter so that progress in improving commercial capability can be monitored effectively. Departments should be required to provide this information. This information should also be provided as part of the response to this recommendation. This should include a list of Senior Responsible Owners of procurement projects, who the Government now propose should be accountable to select committees of Parliament.

-  We mentioned in our original coverage  the Committee's feeling about the Ministry of Defence’s  proposed outsourcing of procurement (creation of a GoCo).  The PASC suggests that salary constraints are having a negative impact on the ability to recruit and retain senior and experienced procurement professionals. I'm not sure that is a big issue at the very top levels, where jobs can be sold on their sheer size and importance, but  it is perhaps more valid at the next mid to senior levels (around Grade7, 6, SCS 1),where the private sector has moved ahead in relative attractiveness because of reward issues.

The very fact the Ministry of Defence is seeking to contract out the procurement function, which is a fundamental reason for the Ministry of Defence’s existence underlines how counterproductive it is to maintain the existing restrictions on salaries and conditions for leading professionals in a modern Civil Service. No other Civil Service in a comparable country operates on the basis that the Prime Minister’s salary should be a maximum... In the meantime, Government should make an assessment of what salaries must be offered to recruit and retain the senior and experienced procurement professionals it needs.

More tomorrow...

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