Centre for Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Enterprise

Little Heresies Seminar Series4

Heresy #4: The Truth about Procurement and other Wicked Diseases

Heretic: John Little, Vaguard (10 September 2014).

Imagine you work in the public-sector. There’s something you want to do to improve your service for citizens, tenants, patients or service users. You know who to ask for help. Perhaps you have used them before; perhaps they have worked for a colleague. Either way, you want them. You might decide to call them up to have a chat about what you need and work out how they will help you. Well, you can’t. Regulation and a veritable army of bureaucrats has seen to that.

Instead you have to take part a costly bureaucratic pantomime of questionnaires, panels and specifications, none of which help you get the help you actually need. This is called professional procurement and it is a pernicious disease.

Procurement isn’t just an annoyance, it’s a national epidemic costing the UK economy many billions of pounds. The attempt to upgrade NHS computer systems in England ended up becoming one of the “worst and most expensive contracting fiascos” in public history according to the Public Accounts Committee. The treatment is reportedly costing the NHS £700m in compensation. This is the equivalent of 26,923 first year doctors or the next 77 years of medical student output from Newcastle University.

The problem isn’t just the squandered money. Procurement has a direct impact on services for people who need help. Professional procurement favours the big organisations. The small ones don’t have the resources to get through the process. The big supplier has an army of shiny shoed spin doctors to tick the right boxes. The smaller supplier, who is much more likely to have the disadvantage of being honest, is pushed out. Procurement favours the big, remote, dishonest organisation. Do we really think the monolith is better placed to deliver back-to-work schemes, social housing repairs or drug treatment programmes for vulnerable people?

John explained how we got into this pickle with procurement (and other diseases in the support function family), why the theory and practice is flawed and the direct impact it has on services for vulnerable people.

Listen to Heresy #4: The Truth about Procurement and other Wicked Diseases.