UK government procurement – response to PASC issued

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) looked into government procurement in the first half of 2013, and produced their report which we covered here. This morning, the Government – the Cabinet Office in practice - has responded to the recommendations of the PSAC and issued a 14 page document titled  Government Procurement: Government Response to the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2013–14 - here it is  Govt Procurement special report HC1015 (4)

Convention dictates that responses are suitably deferential to such Committees.  And in this case, quite a few of the recommendations were really just broadly supporting what Cabinet Office was and is already doing.  So there are rather a lot of “we appreciate the support” type comments here. And in terms of the very first recommendation, the response rightly points out that public procurement in the UK no longer takes more time than in other major countries – indeed, the data PASC was quoting was already well out of date at the time of the original hearings last year.

Then there are the answers that say “we weren’t doing it, but we will do now”. So that covers off areas such as collecting better data about procurement people across central government. But the responses notably lack deadlines, accountabilities and so on – so there will be some sort of government eProcurement strategy published – but when and by whom is not clear.

We also have some gentle disagreement that peeps through the genteel tone of the document. So the PASC thinks procurement should take more account of social issues; we know that Francis Maude, the Minister, disagrees. So we get this.

“However, we do need to be mindful when taking wider policy objectives into account in procurements, as it can add complexity and cost for both government and suppliers. The Government’s policy is to minimise the extent to which the procurement process is used to promote social or other wider policy aims, focusing instead on a fast and efficient process with the central aim of achieving great outcomes”.

That’s as close as we get to Cabinet Office telling PASC to get lost – but that’s what it means in practice. Then there is the classic Yes Minister obfuscation tactic. The PASC said this:

“The Government has failed to set out a clear strategy for public procurement...The Cabinet Office should issue a clear strategy on the organisation of procurement across Government and the wider public sector which sets out its objectives for procurement and how and when they are to be achieved, in response to this report”.

This seems a pretty clear recommendation. But the answer is not yes, we will do a strategy or no, we won’t for these reasons. Instead, the response is a single 300-word paragraph listing some of the Cabinet Office key initiatives – centralisation, publishing data etc.  Presumably that is supposed to be the strategy, which it clearly isn't. Now those actions could form part of a real strategy, but even that is hard to tell because Cabinet Office has never elucidated what that wider strategy for public procurement might be. ‘Save some money’ is clearly a key aim, and not a bad start, but not really a strategy in itself.

But will PASC follow up and say, hang on a minute, you haven’t answered our question? We’ll see. And we will come back to this next week in more detail if I can work up the enthusiasm...

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Voices (5)

  1. life:

    We’re that close to the election now that some of these responses *may* just possibly be calibrated to ensure a solid trajectory into the permanent long grass that awaits on the other side.

    Given how long it’s taken us to get this far, it could well take them another 18 months to get an agreed strategy out anyway so, despite the clear need, you could argue what’s the point? Would have been more useful at the beginning perhaps…!

  2. Trevor Black:

    Sir Humphrey will be delighted that his successor is a chip off the old block. I long for the day when I can say with confidence that at the heart of Government there are professionals who understand how the commercial world works and that they are the leaders in the world on procurement. I don’t need Mystic Meg to tell me that there will be many changes of Chief Procurement Officers and further examples of the identity crisis within the Cabinet Office with very little meaningful progress.

  3. Tom Catuk:

    I’d say that the effort going into the creation of the Crown Commercial service indicates that the cabinet office / government is serious about getting it right, from the centre outwards.

    They have employed some significant brainpower in putting this together, and let’s hope they don’t waste it and revert to type – ie only do what’s easy (such as frameworks) and thereby fail to tackle the department procurement head on…

    1. Bill Atthetill:

      I would argue that they are using a lots of brains but would question whether they those brains have any ‘power’ (in the form of intellect) – this is all quite rudimentary. And, as you rightly say (and reflecting upon Ian’s view here), it’s being shaped and delivered “from the centre outwards”, which, has we all know, is fundamentally flawed, when one goes beyond simple (‘leverage’) commodities…

  4. Ian Taylor:

    There is a growing fear in the wider public sector that central government is going to throw its weight around in areas it does not understand on the pretext of implementing the Lord Young proposals which also didn’t get to grips with the reality of life in local government procurement. Things like a standard Pre Qualification questionnaire and limits on its use and a grand strategy for a single procurement portal without understanding how that impacts on an already successful regional set of such portals. central government doesn’t get it that local government is already far better at working with SME’s and whilst it still has some really odd ways of going about things that a good dose of standardisation would help – a top down approach to 400 individual political entities will not work. I feel that’s why cabinet office isn’t being clear on its strategy because it knows deep down it will reek havoc and kick up one heck of a stink. I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that GPS/CCS/OGC decide to focus on getting central government right and realise that’s going to take much more than the rest of the decade.

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