How are Surrey spending my council tax? We check out their procurement…

Surrey County Hall - not actually in Surrey, strangely enough

I had an enjoyable and interesting discussion with Andrew Forzani (Procurement Director) and Laura Langstaff of Surrey County Council recently. This is the English County in which I live, and a pretty large one, with third party spend of several hundred £M a year, so I’m always interested in how they’re making use of my taxes!

I’ve also followed Langstaff’s career with interest since I was a judge when we named her the CIPS Young Purchaser of the Year in 2006. Which means she must now have reached the grand old age of about 30?!  And she’s already been Head of Procurement at Ealing Council before moving across to be part of Forzani’s senior management team at Surrey.

Surrey has put a lot of emphasis on procurement, and it’s an indication of how it has performed that the previous CPO, Julie Fisher, is now Surrey’s “Strategic Director of Change and Efficiency” with responsibility for finance, HR, IT , property and other support functions as well as procurement.

The team’s biggest priorities these days include taking procurement into the key commissioning areas of the council – spend areas such as social care, children’s services, waste management. I asked them where they stood on the debate in terms of commissioning versus procurement  (see here). They are clear that procurement has a major and valuable role to play but it’s not a case of a procurement “takeover” of these activities.

“Procurement doesn’t do – and probably shouldn’t do - the needs analysis in an area such as social care. That’s a commissioner’s role. But we work very closely with the professionals in those areas. For instance, we produced the relevant procurement plans in Braille so that blind and visually impaired service recipients could review and comment on them,”  as Langstaff says.

Collaboration with other councils is a big issue, but the landscape is changing with funding having been reduced for initiatives such as the RIEPS.  But Surrey is now increasingly working with the “South-East Seven”, along with Hampshire, East and West Sussex, Kent, Medway and Brighton councils.

One of their other major challenges is around people.  They’ve been recruiting recently, and find that many of the candidates who boast “category management” skills don’t live up to the Surrey view of what that means.

“There’s a huge difference between being a category manager in a traditional procurement category, and working in something like social care, where we’re looking for skills in market engagement and shaping, innovative commercial models, and serious supplier management” says Forzani.  And the skills needed are a blend of technical and softer, influencing skills, which again narrows the field.

“But the positive side is that these roles are really interesting and challenging – we’re trying to get the message out that procurement in Surrey is a million miles away from the view of traditional, bureaucratic, local authority procurement”, says Langstaff.

Another topic that is beginning to occupy minds is the desire to support local business, small and innovative firms, social enterprises and mutuals. It feels like this is still work in progress, and we discussed how tricky it is for procurement to balance fairness and legal constraints with the desire to use public procurement to support these “policy” objectives.

So I genuinely left feeling pretty comfortable with how my taxes are being spent, and impressed with the way the team is taking procurement into the really challenging and potentially valuable areas of Surrey’s cost base. There’s much more to do, but it looks like there’s a strong team leading the effort.

Editor's note: Coincidentally, my friend and regular Spend Matters guest writer Toni Saraiva is running a webinar with Andrew Forzani as the guest speaker on 12.30 (UK time) on September 22nd. The topic is -  " The developing role of Procurers - cost saving, innovation..." and you can find out more about it here


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