UK Government comes full-circle in collaborative procurement

We’ll be featuring an interview with Mike Acheson, the recently retired Head of Procurement at Department for Transport shortly. We’ve also got more on my recent trip to Liverpool to see the Government Procurement Service (ex Buying Solutions).  But the common thread is the history of collaborative buying in central government, which highlights the truism that “everything comes full circle if you wait long enough!”

Acheson first moved into procurement in 1979 when he joined the Property Services Agency (PSA). They managed government buildings, and as part of that bought goods and some services to support their property management role. Acheson was responsible for Heating Oil, the biggest buyer in Europe for that commodity. He bought solid fuel, lubricating oil for power stations (still in government hands then) and oil tanks. PSA was the buyer for government of these commodities.

The Supplies Division of the PSA operated as a trading fund from 1976 and in 1984 was renamed The Crown Suppliers – the PSA continued to manage property.  The Buying Agency evolved from the Liverpool Procurement Office of the Crown Suppliers, and in 1989 became a division of Crown Suppliers.  There was a lot of discussion around privatising the Crown Suppliers in the late 80s, but eventually it was just closed down in 1991, but the Buying Agency remained and was established as a trading fund.

Why was the Liverpool Procurement Office set up in the first place? Remember the Toxteth riots of 1981? Michael Heseltine rushing up to Liverpool to sort it out? Well, creating the Procurement Office was one of a number of initiatives that Heseltine used to transfer or create jobs to Liverpool. (The PSA reported to him at the Department of Environment so he had that power).  So even today, Government Procurement Service is in Liverpool because the Scousers rioted….

The Buying Agency was then one of the four organisations that Peter Gershon decided should merge to form OGC in 2000, when they were renamed Buying Solutions. And as we know, this year they became the Government Procurement Service, the delivery arm of the new central Whitehall Government Procurement set-up.

Phew! So what about the “full circle” element?

Well, back in the olden days, the PSA had a mandate. All Government Departments (central at least – I’m not sure how far that extended, although remember at that time there were far fewer Agencies, NDPBs etc) had to buy from and through PSA contracts in areas such as energy, furniture, office supplies. Then through the 90s, we saw power shifted to individual departments and organisations, in the interests supposedly of flexibility and accountability.

Now, in 2011, we are back full circle. The PSA, who had a mandate, begat the Crown Suppliers, who begat the Buying Agency, who begat Buying Solutions, who begat GPS – who finally again have that mandate in central Government at least, as Cabinet Office drive to full collaborative procurement.

Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose)…..

30 years on, is government procurement back to where it started? No, its better in many ways, I’m sure, but isn’t it fascinating to see how history repeats itself! But as Dan, one of our regulars on the “comments” here, said the other day in the context of the OGC website going:

I think, in a few years, we will see a ‘new’ multi-million pound ‘initiative’ to disseminate government best practice around the public sector once they’ve made the easy wins in central government spend. Followed, a few years later by another ‘new’ multi-million pound initiative to focus more on central government spend. These things tend to go in cycles, both in the public sector and private sector….

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  1. terence oram:

    retired now 20 yrs from The Buying Agency I note the changes.It started under the umbrella of The Ministry of Public Building and Wks.,then Dept of Environment and subsequent titles. Technologists. engineers and craftsmen were engaged from industrial backgrounds.The contracts set up saved much tax payers money. Ministers knew very little about the role played on behalf of the NHS,HM.Prisons and assorted govmnt.buildings.Why disrupt asystem that benefitted and helped to maintain British Standards and quality control procedures

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