The Procserve network and how to maximise the benefit of public procurement data

We featured last week a session I facilitated forProcserve, who provide the UK government e-marketplace and what is in effect a “supplier network” for many public sector bodies. Various folk from central and local government, health and education came together to look at what the public sector might be able to do with the data and information that cn potentially be generated from the use of the marketplace.

In our previous article, we looked at the sort of analysis that can be conducted. That ranges from straightforward price comparisons between users, or between different suppliers to a single user for instance. As we get more sophisticated, we could get into analysis of economies of scale for different products, and perhaps look at the price differences between large and small suppliers  – actually put some numbers around the “supporting SMEs” policy initiative perhaps.

At one level, the information that relates to purely internal comparisons for a single organisation is relatively uncontentious. Anlaysing prices from different suppliers, or one supplier over time within my own organisation is useful and not too sensitive. It’s when we get into comparisons with other organisations that matters get a little trickier – even if the data is anonymised, as it surely would be,

One point of debate was how would users make sure that this doesn’t become another highly tactical, “my copier paper is cheaper than yours” debate (cf. the Philip Green report from a couple of years ago). One answer may be to ensure that the analysis is presented in a wider context – for instance, if it were to look at the interesting and strategic issues around SMEs and the like, would that avoid undue focus on the more straightforward comparisons?

And on a similar note, if we are going to make comparisons, we must be sure enough of the data and that we are comparing like for like. We know that even comparing the ubiquitous copier paper has its problems – what is the order size or delivery quantity? How is it ordered – phone, online, catalogue? Is the spec exactly the same?

So there are inevitable sensitivities around organisations exposing their own data. If that was going to be used for the media or indeed other stakeholders to “beat the buyers across the head”,  then getting buy-in won’t be easy. One answer to that is to make sure we have proper governance over how this data is used.  That took the debate into who might act as the lead “authority” in terms of the data. Is there a role for National Audit Office here perhaps?  Do we need a steering group to provide direction over what analysis is carried out and how data is used?

We didn’t answer these questions in the couple of hours available, which made it feel like the start of a process rather than the end – some excellent discussion, but some knotty issues still to resolve. However, having this data, building in size and therefore value all the time, is going to help individual organisations and will enable benefits ranging from identifying savings opportunities to assessment of the true value  of SMEs. So we will need to be cautious in how it is used, but as the Procserve network grows, it will I’m sure help the public sector to improve performance and deliver better value.

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