Let’s be honest, the announcement of a government consultation on a document entitled “Green Paper: Transforming public procurement” doesn’t immediately set the pulse racing. But behind the technocratic title lies a really significant moment in the future of our public services.
For a number of years now, our Keep it Local campaign has shown how crucial procurement is for getting the right kind of services. Our recent report sharing learning from Bradford and Bristol outlined how, at its most ambitious, procurement is central to a local authority’s place shaping strategy. It should be about working closely with commissioners to find the right mechanism to support a service outcome and contribute to the council’s wider strategic vision. But too often it becomes the embodiment of a “system says no” mindset: focused on rules and risk rather than people and place.
We know from years of experience working with local areas that much of this about culture rather than what is and isn’t permissible in the actual procurement rules. As Julian Blake – the lawyer who wrote “The Art of the Possible in Public Procurement” – put it in a Keep it Local essay for us:
“A tenacious myth became entrenched in the public service environment, that the remoteness and impersonality of European law had imposed burdensome obligations that inhibited, or even prohibited, commissioning good sense. The opposite is the case. The regulations are, by design, enabling, permissive and flexible …The true villain is domestic, bureaucratic institutionalism. This has allowed procurement to bloat into a statist industry, distorting and swamping clarity of purpose in public services”
So the procurement green paper presents a potential reset moment – to makes sure our rules and procedures support our services rather than stand in their way. And at Locality we want to make sure the government is going to seize the opportunity to really shift the dial.
At present, the signs aren’t great. There are definitely some good things in the green paper that would represent progress. It tries to move the emphasis away from evaluating tenders solely on cost towards a broader understanding of “best value” that encompasses long-term social value as well. An explicit part of its purpose is to “unleash opportunity for small business, charities and social enterprises to innovate in public service delivery”. It improves transparency and makes some potentially helpful changes which could reduce nefarious use of the challenge process by large organisations with deep pockets.
But taken together, these look like small tweaks that start from the wrong place. The key motivation of the green paper is to speed up and simplify the procurement process. The desire to streamline means it brings together various different procurement rules and processes – the current Public Contracts Regulations and those which govern defence, utilities and concession contracts – into “three simple procedures”.
Not only does this remove measures like the Light Touch Regime and Innovation Partnerships, which we have stressed as good procurement options for Keep it Local commissioning. It also brings clearly into view what has always been apparent: public services are different. There is a big question about whether public services – in particular the person-centred services provided with such expertise by community organisations – should be a procurement question at all. But if they are, it feels fairly obvious that they need a different approach to how we buy missiles.
So we’re going to working with our members and with our allies in the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign to understand the implications of the procurement green paper and put forward strong recommendations for how it can most effectively support community organisations to provide the high quality, distinctive services they are so good at.
We’re currently thinking about two key questions:
- Is the overall approach the right one? Our initial sense is: no. Public services aren’t the same as commercial services and shouldn’t be treated as such. What’s more, as Julian Blake highlights above, the issue isn’t so much the procurement rules as culture and how they are implemented, so the green paper isn’t coming at the problem from the right starting point.
- Will the specific proposals make things better or worse? Here the picture is more mixed, with some potential improvements that are likely to be of use to Keep it Local councils who want to use procurement in a progressive way, and have the desire, skills and capacity to use the flexibilities on offer. But they are unlikely to shift the default or inspire fundamental, system wide change. They are useful nudge when what’s needed is a decisive shove.
Though it can feel like a dry and technical topic, we know how important procurement is to the work our members do on the ground. Over the past decade, the shift away from grants towards ever bigger and more bureaucratic contracts has had a massive impact on community organisations’ ability to provide the services they know local people need. And procurement is a big deal in terms of public spending: the green paper states the UK spends £290bn on public procurement per year.
So we want to hear our members thoughts and feelings about the future of local services – and how procurement can help them realise their ambitions for their neighbourhoods.
Join us for a “think in”, where we’ll share our initial thinking on the green paper in more detail, hear members views and work together to shape key messages.