5 things we learned about procurement

The Wales Centre for Public Policy has been exploring the case for a more strategic approach to public procurement for nearly two years. In July 2018 we hosted an event that considered the lessons from the collapse of Carillion. Earlier this year we published reports on contracting, stewardship and public value and on sustainable public procurement. In February 2019 we hosted an event that brought together procurement professionals, academics and others to discuss the opportunities for and barriers to procurement approaches that seek maximise public value.

Recently, we hosted an event to bring together procurement professionals and interested stakeholders to discuss what has changed since procurement became more prominent in the public policy debate, and what still needs to happen. Our speakers were Dr Jane Lynch, Liz Lucas, Steve Robinson and Professor Kevin Morgan. This blog summarises five things that we learned.

  1. Wales isn’t doing so badly

In (rightly) identifying problems with procurement and trying to focus on improvements, it is easy to sound defeatist. But both the debate and the practice in Wales is more mature than some nations. The Welsh Government, through policy statements and other legislation, has set out the overriding principles for public procurement, which include delivering wider social, economic and environmental benefit for the community.

  1. Procurement needs to be respected as a profession

For many different reasons, the procurement profession lacks capacity. Partly, this is because local government austerity has stripped out procurement capacity. But it’s also about how the profession is viewed. Panellists argued that procurement is always at the bottom of the food chain: something akin to a ‘fluffy obligation’. There is a cultural issue about how procurement jobs are viewed and valued in local government. Do heads of procurement report directly to chief executives? Or do they report to lower levels of authority, where procurement might be viewed more as a cost saving exercise rather than to generate public value?

  1. Wales lacks the resources and capacity to deliver effectively, and this affects procurement

Has devolution given Wales the powers, levers and capacity on which to deliver policy aspirations? A general feeling in the room was – in the context of procurement – that it had not. Wales has passed good legislation, but the resource and strategic direction are not there. Procurement needs to be seen in the context of how it can deliver effective policy within government. This is especially the case if it is to a solution to pressing public policy challenges (such as boosting the foundational economy and delivering some of the objectives of the Well-being of Future Generations Act). This is not (just) about legislating, but about following through ‘on the ground’ to make sure that these priorities are embedded.

  1. It is really difficult to embed good practice

There was limited discussion of the National Procurement Service, but one challenge for a national body is the assumption that local authorities think and act in the same way; rather there are 22 different organisations in different geographies and with different pressures and priorities. Nonetheless, redesigning the procurement wheel 22 times is burdensome and unnecessary. There is scope to do much better in how local authorities collaborate, and share and develop good practice across the sector, as well as with other public sector bodies.

National stakeholders will be important in helping this to happen. Welsh Government has a role. Public bodies like the Welsh Local Government Association and the Future Generations Commissioner’s Office have a role. There may be a need for public services to create and embed a procurement ecosystem that can share good practice and work together.

  1. How can we encourage innovation?

There was agreement that innovation in procurement was being stymied, and that there remains a gap between legislation and delivery. What is stopping us and how can we overcome the barriers?

A running theme of the event was the need to encourage procurement capacity. That might mean clarifying the role of the National Procurement Service in the short term, and in the long term it could mean transforming the culture to enable collaboration, and increasing recognition of the sector so that it is an obviously valued resource for delivering public goods and services in Wales.

To read all of our work on procurement, see here.