What, you may ask, has been going on with CIPS and the debate about the proposed changes to governance of the esteemed Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply? (Start here if you are new to this topic).

You may remember I raised concerns about the way members were losing their right to vote (directly and / or indirectly) for members of the Global Board of Trustees (GBT), who ultimately bear responsibility for the Institute. That followed the abolition of Congress and its replacement by a Membership Committee – a step that, whatever you think of its merits, was not particularly well handled or communicated. Under the proposed model, Trustees would be appointed following an application and interview process, run by the Nominations Committee (NC).

As well as the issue of member democracy, many of us were also concerned about the power these changes vested in the NC, which did not appear to have the independence required if it was to play such a key role.  (I didn’t agree with the abolition of the President role either, but I didn’t feel so strongly about that).

I ran a quick survey that showed many other members shared my concerns, but then I had positive discussions with CIPS leadership on these topics in December. Critically, we agreed there would be a genuine and open consultation with members on the voting issue. That led to the Chair, Paul Thorogood, sending me an email in mid-December, laying out what he and the team had agreed would be the next steps. He agreed on a consultation in late January, which would address a number of issues, including, “The mix of trustees – appointed vs elected – on GBT and the process for appointing/electing members”. He also said that “Options will be proposed for each, together with pros and cons.  Members will be asked to select their preferred option in each case”.

I was happy with that, and backed off from my campaign whilst the consultation was being prepared; hence my silence on the issue recently.

I was therefore surprised – and annoyed – when I saw the communication from the CIPS CEO (Malcolm Harrison) to members last week and the new message on the website. That extolled the benefits and virtues of the process for appointing Trustees based on an application and interview process. It did reflect our discussions about the NC at least – but made no mention of member voting being retained.

Hang on, I said to Paul and Malcolm, that’s not what we agreed you would do.   Sorry, they said, the consultation is coming soon, this was just a communication about what is already happening now that Congress has been abolished – so new appointments to the GBT in recent months have gone through the interview process.  And we didn’t mean to go back on our agreement, they said, we didn’t think this communication was anything to do with the forthcoming  consultation.

The problem, as I pointed out, is that members would read the new note and feel the interview route and resulting dis-enfranchisement of members was a fait accompli. You’ve said all these positive things about the interview option – that is not exactly the level playing field we had agreed for the consultation.   

So in this week’s communication – mainly about ambassadorial roles – it was good to see some acknowledgment of that, as Malcolm says this about the Trustee issue.  

“In my message to you last week, I covered the proposals to open up the recruitment process for the trustees on our Global Board of Trustees which we had already communicated last year…. We wish to consult with members on several options, not just the proposal which we communicated last year. These options will be laid out in the consultation document which will be issued by the end of January”.

Confused? So just for the avoidance of doubt, the consultation, when it comes, is still important. If you feel strongly about preserving democracy in some form as a CIPS member, please make your voice heard. Personally, I would go for a mix of directly elected and appointed members for the GBT – but I accept that members may choose to support the 100% appointed route. No other major Institute has done this, as far as I can see, but CIPS could be a pioneer.  My main interest through this whole process has been to give the full membership a proper voice in the discussion, rather than just see a small group driving vital decisions.

The changes already made and proposed to the democratic process, to Congress, the Presidency and the GBT are really fundamental and change the whole nature of CIPS as it is currently described in our Charter. So it’s vital that CIPS does take governance – and the views of its members – seriously.

In early December the UK Government Cabinet Office published its response to its consultation on proposed new UK public procurement regulations. I was hoping to see what the real experts (Arrowsmith, Telles, Sanchez-Graells etc) thought of the response before going into print, but let’s give it a shot anyway! 

These new regulations in the UK will supersede the previous EU Regs, and will define the way that over £300 billion a year is spent by public sector organisations. The rules may seem unimportant to the average citizen, but getting value for money from this huge spend (£6,000 per year for every adult in the country), and avoiding fraud and corruption are fundamental issues – they have a direct impact on how much tax we all pay, for a start!

The first point to make about the Government’s response is that those who participated in the consultation exercise weren’t wasting their time.  We’ve seen past consultations in different areas of policy where the government seemed to be just ticking the box (“we’ve consulted”) and showed no real desire to change initial proposals or listen to advice. But in this case, credit to the Cabinet Office procurement policy folk – and their political masters – for taking on board many of the most significant points raised by respondents.

That includes for instance retaining the “light touch” regime (with some improvements) for certain procurements, an approach that was seen as helpful by many local authorities and health bodies. Whilst the specific Utilities Regulations will still go, that sector will be able to continue with some of the special “flexibilities” buyers there find useful – the original proposal would have abolished those.

The central governance of the new regime has been watered down after many who commented (including me) expressed concern about an over-powerful new Cabinet Office unit sitting in judgement over buyers, with the ability to intervene or effectively even take over a procurement function that stepped out of line. The new proposals pull back from that, looking instead to build on current powers, although there will be “a duty for contracting authorities to implement recommendations to address non-compliance of procurement law, where breaches have been identified”, which seems reasonable.

The proposal to cap damages where buyers break the rules and get sued by bidders has been dropped – to me, that seemed to be largely addressing a non-existent problem in any case. But the government is still looking at “other measures aimed at resolving disputes faster which would reduce the need to pay compensatory damages to losing bidders after contracts have been signed”.

Transparency is a key issue. The proposals certainly should help in some areas – for instance, by increasing disclosure when contracts are extended or varied.  Following consultation, “we intend to ensure the transparency requirements are proportionate to the procurements being carried out and are simple to implement”. That is hard to argue with, and of course focusing on the most significant contracts is understandable.

But I do still worry that the barriers provided by exemptions from Freedom of Information rules could make it difficult for spend to be properly scrutinized. The reluctance of politicians recently to tell us what went on across a whole range of pandemic-related contracts shows why this is so important. We can’t let UK public procurement slip into the morass of cronyism and corruption that many countries around the world experience, and the last two years have shown we are not immune to that threat.  

Perhaps the biggest question about the proposed changes is around the basic strategy of freeing up contracting authorities from highly structured processes, Instead, buyers will have more scope to design their own processes, within certain broad parameters around fairness and (to some extent) transparency. But that might increase the burden on suppliers if they have to cope with many different approaches and processes when they want to bid for government work, rather than just a handful of set procedures.

However, I don’t think in practice that politicians would have accepted a UK regime that was largely unchanged. “We need to show that we can do things better than the EU” would have been the (not unreasonable) objective behind the new rules. So that additional freedom was always likely to be part of the package – whether it “reduces bureaucracy” or increases it (from the supplier perspective) remains to be seen.

Similarly, we will have to see whether that freedom leads to more commercial approaches to procurement, better use of negotiation and ultimately better value for the taxpayer. Or will it mean  more corrupt procurement, with the flexibility used to give contracts to friends, relatives, cronies, attractive blond American IT experts and random pub landlords? 

That uncertainty means we won’t know for several years whether the new regulations are a success or not. And that leads to a final question – how will we know?  What are the critical success measures, the results, outputs or outcomes that would lead us to say, “yes, the new procurement regulations really have made a difference”?   I’ll leave that question for another day.