The UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a report last week titled “Competition in Public Procurement”. It’s a shame that the report came out so close to Christmas and in the middle of Gaza, the Covid inquiry, Conservative Party meltdown and general office party debauchery. That meant it got less publicity than it should have, because it contains some important analysis and recommendations. It is also very relevant because 2024 is going to be the most important year for public procurement in ages, with new regulations and (probably) a new government too.
The PAC usually takes reports from the National Audit Office as their starting point and this is no exception. NAO published “Competition in public procurement – lessons learned” in August and we covered it here. But this PAC report does pick up on some other issues, such as the need to transition to the new procurement regulations in October 2024.
“We are concerned that the government may not have sufficiently considered the time, money, and resources required to provide the commercial capabilities to successfully implement the Procurement Act 2023”, says the PAC.
But the heart of the report questions (as NAO did) whether the UK government is getting value for money (VFM) from procurement spend, in particular by using competition effectively. One of the core issues here is the lack of good data around public procurement which means “government is unable to evaluate competitive trends, understand how effectively markets are open to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and other companies outside government’s strategic suppliers, or set out clear directions and guidance for contracting authorities”.
That is a fair comment, and it appears that there is less competition in public procurement than there was a few years ago, which is a worry. But I do struggle a bit with the concept that better data will allow you to judge VFM. All of us who have worked in procurement know how difficult it is to absolutely KNOW that the contract or deal we have done is the best we could have achieved or even that it is genuinely good VFM. More data in itself does not necessarily help in that.
What you can do is look at the inputs into procurement activity as a proxy for getting the right outputs. That is why aspects such as having the right processes, policies, systems, trained and capable people, strong competition and so on are so important. We can make some assumptions that if you get all that right, you probably will get good value out of the other end.
On that note, the report picks up on the growth in use of frameworks in recent years. Now frameworks do have a valid role to play, but as the PAC says, “the Government Commercial Function has not provided sufficient guidance to address the potential risks to competitive benefits”. Used wrongly, frameworks can contribute to closed or competitive markets, and provide a route for buyers to simply choose their favoured suppliers without real competition. That may be done for different reasons.
- “Reasonably good” reasons – “we’re in a real hurry and I know this firm can meet our needs”
- “Poor reasons – “We’re short-staffed, I just don’t have the resource to run a proper competition”
- Or REALLY bad reasons “I’ve been unofficially promised a job with this software firm / consultancy when I leave the civil service so it’s worth my while keeping them happy now”.
The PAC does make the fundamental mistake of bleating on about SMEs (small firms). It really is about time we had a proper, rigorous review of the idea that supporting SMEs is the right policy. Why not minority owned firms, or social enterprises and charities, or innovative start-ups, or local firms? The supporting SME policy has in any case failed to deliver against its objectives for a decade now, so for goodness sake, let’s take a proper look at it.
If Labour does win the election next year, there are radical steps it could take and a review of the SME policy would be one. But abolishing Crown Commercial Services would be another. CCS has many successes and positives, but it does inevitably support the idea of central contracts and frameworks, many of which are fundamentally anti-competitive. Then all the little buyers around the country are encouraged to use them, because they don’t have the skills or time to do procurement properly themselves.
The PAC report says this. “While we acknowledge that government has made progress to professionalise the commercial function at the centre, we are concerned that it has not sufficiently prioritised the need to develop that expertise across government, to ensure the successful implementation of the Procurement Act”.
I think that is a fair point. If Labour is serious about devolution, then it will be interesting to see if that strategic thrust is applied to procurement as well as to other policies and approaches. If so, Labour will need to spread the expertise that has been increasingly concentrated in Cabinet Office, break up large national frameworks, drive more competition, encourage a wider range of firms into the public sector supply base, and get more procurement expertise to the front line. Will that happen? I have my doubts, but we’ll see.
Anyway, the PAC report is worth 20 minutes of your time over the festive period. Enjoy… and happy Christmas!