The Police should not outsource to G4S without competition

Whilst recognising the limited influence we have here, I would like to do everything possible to encourage the Chief Constables and Police Authorities of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire in the UK to abandon their plans to enter a major outsource contract with G4S when they meet later today.

Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t say that because of the Olympics and the performance of G4S in that context.

And it is not because of any philosophical objection to outsourcing in the public sector. Some outsourced operations work very well, some don’t. The same is true of activities delivered by public and civil servants.  (To throw in a controversial comment, do we really think management of immigration at our airports could be any worse if we’d outsourced the entire operation of the Border Agency a few years ago)?

The Police Forces should not proceed with the potential outsource because engaging G4S in the manner which is being proposed would simply be bad procurement, bad commercially, and bad business.

G4S were engaged by Lincolnshire Police last year to run a major outsource programme. I can’t comment on whether that was a well run procurement, or whether strategically it is the right step. But what I do know is that the competitive process was based around the needs of Lincolnshire, NOT Bedford, Cambridge or Hertford.

Now the contract was let – from a technical, EU Regulatory point of view - in a manner that makes it legally available to other Police Forces. But that methodology, letting a “framework” contract that is open to others to use, was never intended to apply to complex outsourced services, and is fundamentally not suitable to be used in that manner.  Frameworks were designed for stationery, or laptops, or perhaps a service that is fairly standard. In such cases, if one public body placed a contract for pens and pencils, it was not unreasonable for it to be open to others.

But it is inappropriate for a complex service, like a multi-faceted outsource, which must almost by definition be tailored to meet the needs of the specific organisation. Those needs simply can’t be identical to those of the organisation that let the initial contract. This is also basically anti-competitive - do you really wan to award the contract with no chance for any other firm to compete, with no checking of other market options, or testing the value for money and capability of the supplier to actually meet your specific needs? It’s crazy.

You might argue that frameworks are widely used now in spend areas such as professional services. But in virtually all cases, there are multiple suppliers on a framework, and the buyer runs a competitive process (a “mini-competition” in public procurement jargon) to choose their final supplier.  That enables you to test the suppliers, exert some further commercial pressure and end up –we hope – with a value for money contract that delivers what you want.

In this case however, just awarding these potential huge and strategically vital contracts to any supplier, never mind G4S, with no competition, and no competitive pressure? It may not be illegal under EU regulations, but it is (I’d argue) bordering on the immoral, in terms of failure to ensure best value from public money, it would certainly be commercially naive and is very likely to end in tears.

Please, if any reader has the opportunity, forward this article on to anyone who might have some influence over the Police Authorities who are debating this. Forget the Olympics and the G4S issues – this non-competitive process would not be the right thing to do with any supplier.


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