Thursday, 3 January 2013

Waste: The UK Government Shopping Channel

Whatever you think about taxes, we have to put an end to wasteful public spending. This is not about making 'cuts'. There are no hard choices here, no job losses. This is about staff being intelligent in how they spend money. 

Believe it or not, the government is trying to reduce waste. Today's example is the 'mystery shopping' channel that enables suppliers to report poor public sector purchasing practices, as explained in the short video embedded below. But I've been disappointed not to see more signs that the public telecoms bill has fallen by 30-40%, as Green reckoned it could (progress on IT strategy is reported to be slow, and limited to central government). And I'm yet to see the total figure for travel expenditure (let alone any reduction), despite an announcement in 2011 on central procurement of travel.

But, hey, let's applaud progress where we can.

After 18 months of mystery shopping over 300 complaints have been received. Of all complaints made about 80% are said to relate to the buying process itself, followed by contract mis-management (7%), bureaucracy (5%) and technology/systems (5%). A more detailed breakdown of the 240 'process' complaints suggests significant problems with pre-qualifying suppliers and poor 'purchasing strategy'. Central government is responsible for a third of complaints, but most relate to the NHS and other 'wider public sector' bodies. About 80% of cases referred resulted in a "positive outcome" - a great achievement from zero. The recommendations (summarised below) provide further insights.

However, it would be helpful to know how this complaints process fits into a more comprehensive approach to improving the public sector procurement process. I suspect that 300 complaints in 18 months represents too small a sample of all procurement opportunities to be relied upon as a guide to root causes of major problems. And the fact that 20% of complaints were not resolved satisfactorily leaves a lot of room for improvement. While it's critical to seek and listen to 'customers' comments and complaints, I would prefer to see a more data-driven approach overall, with simple metrics aimed at detecting problems in each step of the end-to-end procurement process. One can then look at which steps are attracting the most complaints, from whom and the value at stake before dedicating resource to figuring out root causes and improvements. There are also plenty of internal suppliers and customers to the procurement process whose complaints will be important to capture in addition to those of SME bidders. Maybe that more comprehensive approach is inherent in the suggested lean sourcing process, but I haven't seen specific mention of it yet. 

It will be critical to understand the bigger picture and to see how this programme develops over the next few years.

  • A supplier's history of dealing with the private sector must also be given the same weight as any record of selling to the public sector.
  • Insurance only needs to be in place once the supplier has actually won a tender, rather than when responding to a tender.
  • Dynamic marketplaces and the Contracts Finder portal are designed to avoid all SMEs having to sub-contract to a large supplier (and the inevitable fat mark-up). But more time needs to be provided to answer some advertisements.
  • Specifications should also be drawn broadly enough to enable more suppliers to compete for the work.
  • Faster payment of invoices is critical. The public sector buyer is responsible for ensuring that prime contractors pay sub-contractors within 30 days of the receipt of a valid invoice in goods and services contracts.
  • Public sector buyers must not charge suppliers for the right to bid. Instead, the cost of promoting "framework agreements and other catalogue type arrangements should be related to the value of business a supplier derives from those arrangements, rather than an upfront charge."

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