Government aims high with procurement rethink
A range of reforms to UK public procurement are due to be put before Parliament in September.
The Procurement Bill – preceded by a Green Paper published in December last year and informed by a consultation process – is an ambitious attempt to streamline the mechanics of government purchasing.
The proposed regime will focus on creating more value and choice for buyers while promoting improved engagement and outcomes in supply chains.
Measures to secure more equitable access to opportunities for SMEs and third sector (not for profit). Innovators will feature heavily, supporting broader efforts to drive public service improvement and wealth creation.
Notably, the new rules are seen as a facilitator for the Levelling Up initiative, a regionally targeted attempt to boost public services, catalyse local economies and decentralise civil service employment.
However, the latest details about the Bill have caused concern that the government is not adapting its proposals in the face of numerous consultation responses.
Much of the feedback provided – typified by the broadly positive but highly provisional verdict from the Local Government Association (LGA) – has warned of disconnects between the new policy regime and the intricacies of procurement at community level.
The LGA have warned that some changes – such as the removal of the Light Touch Regime – may result in more administrative burden, not less.
Moreover, they believe that the government’s framing of the proposed changes around national policy priorities is inappropriate, arguing that community-centric factors should take precedence in council and locally-led procurement.
As for the drive to boost SME and third sector access to publicly funded supply chains, the LGA noted that new policies – such as the publication of procurement pipelines – may still be weighted towards larger suppliers and do little to remove bidding barriers for budding businesses and charitable organisations.
Indeed, there are doubts that top-down policy change will result in improved access unless “risk-averse” public sector buyers are empowered and encouraged to take the lead and effectively leverage the purchasing options available to them.
Addressing the needs of such an eclectic mix of organisations and operating models with a simplified legal framework – while simultaneously promoting nuance and flexibility – was always going to be a tall order.
The real benchmark for the upcoming overhaul will be the ability of purchasers to join up broad policy with workable practice: transparent and collaborative implementation that ensures commonality while catering to sector-specific complexities will be vital in the successful rollout of the changes.
Tech sector tips
While the nature of purchasing organisations and their supply chains can differ immensely, the technological basis of procurement and tendering is common across the public sector and ongoing innovation in this area is intrinsic to any overarching attempt at simplification.
The ongoing transformation agenda across the UK’s public services is perhaps as crucial in sparking smarter procurement as the letter of the law.
Both buyers and suppliers at the small to medium end of the spectrum are disproportionately affected by the administrative burden of complex competitive processes, but currently clunky high level policy is only one causal factor: the UK’s e-procurement and e-tendering infrastructure is clumsy, with a dizzying maze of disjointed and competing public and commercial platforms.
More positively, the digital side of public procurement can provide some pointers for legislators and purchasers when it comes to driving innovation, nurturing start-ups and creating a more equitable flow of spend to SMEs.
Sensible stimulus for genuine innovators and responsible wealth creators – such as the British Grant Fund’s recent investment in e-commerce specialists Bloom Procurement Services – is key to pushing more public spend towards suppliers providing novel solutions.
The government’s Digital Marketplace – a procurement hub managed by the Crown Commercial Service that runs specialist frameworks and provides assorted resources for buyers and suppliers – is a bright spot in a confusing clutter of tender databases, registration processes and overlapping purchasing mechanisms.
Of over £2.5 billion spent through their Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework alone since 2016, 34% has benefitted smaller businesses, surpassing the government’s pan-sector target of 33% market share for SMEs by 2022.
Small businesses in the tech sector generally benefit from low overheads, allowing the most agile and inventive firms to punch above their weight in cost-conscious competitive tendering. Unfortunately, too much public spend continues to disappear into convoluted chasms of debt.
The concept of digital transformation characterises technology as the driving force behind new and improved processes, not merely a means to expedite them.
The stated objectives of procurement reform such as increased transparency, more efficient use of resources and heightened collaboration between disparate parties cannot be achieved without complementary technical solutions.
The single supplier registration database proposed by the upcoming Bill, for example, exemplifies the kind of tech-led simplification that will significantly reduce duplication of effort for both buyers and bidders.
Similar real-world fixes to the public sector marketplace are both necessary and inevitable as information and communications technology (ICT) continues to develop at breakneck pace.
Game-changing advancements such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain – though still nebulous to many – are now well beyond buzzwords and ever more basic to everyday business: these evolving technological cogs are creating a new calculus for e-commerce generally and the procurement lifecycle in particular.
As an example, the Tenderhood, a recently launched online service targeting the SME market, is innovatively applying AI to one of the more intractable and frustrating challenges for suppliers: that of efficiently and reliably matching relevant public contract notices to a company’s capabilities.
Efforts at the legislative level to simplify public procurement must surely be mirrored by similarly streamlined workflow for buyers and suppliers if the government’s high-minded aspirations are to be met.
John Cutt is a storyteller and researcher with extensive commercial experience in public sector tendering and procurement.
His services include creative and technical copywriting, SEO, social media management and brand consultancy.