Last week, Gareth Davies, head of the UK’s National Audit Office, gave a speech to members of parliament and civil servants. He drew on the experience of NAO in carrying out dozens of reviews over the last three years to highlight “three big lessons for public spending in large scale emergencies”. All three have implications for and are related to procurement in some sense.
“Firstly, the importance of maintaining basic standards of public accountability even in a crisis, and restoring normal controls as soon as possible.
Secondly, the central role of good quality data in responding quickly and targeting resources accurately.
And thirdly, the need for a new approach to improving the country’s resilience to large scale emergencies, which minimises the impact on current and future taxpayers”.
Under the first heading of basic standards, he accepts that there wasn’t time to carry out full and normal processes in areas such as PPE procurement or furlough loans. But there was then no excuse for government failure to apply the safeguards of transparency, for example in terms of large PPE contracts.
“It was therefore a concern to see significant delays to government publishing the details for some (often very large) contracts that had been awarded without competition. It is not an onerous task to publish this information promptly, and it is a vital one”.
Timely accounting is also key, and he points out the worrying situation in local government where a third of councils at the end of September 2022 had still not published their accounts for the year ended March 2021! Given the waste of money / fraud /massive incompetence that is now coming to light in councils such as Thurrock, Croydon and Slough, timely accounting is “critical to protecting taxpayers and maintaining trust in public spending”.
Under the good quality data headline, he praises some aspects of the NHS App as a good example of the benefits that data can bring, but government has to do more, and progress has been too slow. There are three key issues that can help drive greater efficiency:
- Data standards: essential for efficient use of data, held in a consistent way
- Data quality: for accurate and reliable results and maintaining public confidence
- Data sharing: so that citizens don’t have to repeat themselves
Finally, resilience – “how is government ensuring that our country is resilient enough to withstand costly crises, without placing an unaffordable burden on taxpayers? And what will good value for money look like in future pandemic planning?”
We need more flexible approaches, he says, but above all we need a more considered approach to risk. For instance, given climate change, there are major issues around water supply, but NAO found no convincing plans to stop the south of England running out of water by 2040! (That’s a worry for a vegetable grower like me even with 8 rainwater butts / bins dotted under various drainpipes and around the garden…)
“To be truly resilient, government must plan for scenarios that it previously dismissed as extreme, and revisit its assessments of how likely they are to happen. This is crucial if we are to achieve value for money, not just in the short term, but for future generations.”
His final remarks on efficiency in government spending more generally focus mainly on evaluation and evidence. Basically, government spends money and has little idea of whether it does what it was supposed to (or achieves anything at all in some cases). Here’s a shocking fact. In 2019, – “out of the government’s 108 most complex and strategically significant projects, only nine were evaluated robustly. Seventy-seven of them had no evaluation arrangements at all”.
There are other good points around efficiency. Understanding and managing demand for services is key; and we need more and better investment in digital services (with the caveat that projects are consistently over-optimistic about implementation in the public sector). Davies wants more focus on the nuts and bolts of efficiency. “We have seen too many high-level ambitions fail to be translated into concrete plans, adequately resourced and tightly-managed. The skills and organisational discipline required for this are well understood, but they are not always valued and prioritised in government.”
Indeed. I still wait to see the first appointment of a Permanent Secretary who has risen through roles in procurement, commercial, project management and delivery, rather than the traditional policy and private-office-heavy route. That would be a real indicator that government is taking these messages seriously!