In the fourth article in a series charting the key issues in public sector procurement, we examine the difficulties for organisations in deciding whether or not to outsource key strategic services and what this may mean for procurement.
I’ve been told in the past that procurement is a cyclical beast – the chances are high that a decision made today will be revisited in 5-7 years’ time and reversed, only for it to cycle round again at the next strategic business assessment.
One common example is centralised versus decentralised services and the level of autonomy business units are given. I’ve had the opportunity to witness this cyclical decision making first hand and have to say that, as much as it sounds fantastical, there’s a ring of truth to it.
I wasn’t long into my role with the organisation in question when the procurement department was pulled into a meeting with the Procurement Director. The purpose, ostensibly, of the meeting was to discuss the strategic direction of the department. However, the experienced members of the team knew exactly what was coming and they were proved to be correct.
The decision had already been made to centralise the procurement activities to one site (ours), with the Director justifying the move with talk of cost efficiencies, economies of scale and better governance over processes. This all sounded very sensible to me, a relatively green procurement professional. After all, the organisation as a whole had cost savings targets and to me it didn’t make sense to have everyone doing their own thing when it came to procurement.
It wasn’t until I sat down with my more experienced (and some might say cynical) colleagues that I fully understood what was going on. This was a strategic decision made by a new Director looking to put their stamp on the department. Not only this, but the department had only gone through an exercise of decentralisation 6 years before, with the move justified by talk of greater efficiency, more autonomy and procurement better able to service the individual site needs.
It became clear during my conversations with other department members that not only did they think this wouldn’t change the way the business worked (wasting time and money in the process), but that it would be reversed by the next Director in a few years’ time. I’d be lying if I said this whole thing didn’t confuse me, but I was to realise that this was more common that you might think as my time in procurement went on.
The Strategic Hokey Cokey
The example above is meant as an illustration of how strategic decisions can be made and justified no matter which side you fall on. It is neither complaint nor criticism, but an observation from someone who, at the time, had next to no experience in procurement. As time went on, I ended up procuring external services as part of a role, as well as managing an in-house manufacturing process for a procurement department.
The decision of whether to outsource strategic services, or keep the work and skills in house, is one that faces many organisations. Taken as part of the decision making cycle, it can begin to feel a bit like the hokey cokey. Insource this, outsource that, in-out, in-out, shake it all about and, frequently, hope for the best when someone comes asking about business costs and value.
But what is the best value approach when it comes to sourcing key strategic services? In the public sector, an argument could be made for outsourcing for budgetary or expertise reasons. However, the counter-argument relates to potential job losses and the erosion of workers’ skills, losing the option to bring them back in-house in the future.
The strategic services most commonly associated with outsourcing would include HR, Marketing, Finance and even Procurement. But in the public sector would there be an appetite for outsourcing procurement? And what could it mean for this and other services in the long run?
On the Way Out?
Fundamentally, it boils down to the question of whether or not the public sector could or should outsource their procurement function, and what the benefits would be were they to choose to do so.
We’ll come back to the first part of that question shortly. Ascertaining the benefits of outsourcing procurement is tricky, as any benefits tend to be subjective and wouldn’t necessarily apply to all organisations. There has been plenty written, too, on both sides of the debate, including a very interesting discussion on Procurious.
From a wealth of articles on the subject, the most commonly mentioned benefits to outsourcing a procurement function include cost reduction (relating to head count, training and access to resources); accessing expertise in a particular area in the market; a way of complementing existing resources; and the access to extensive networks of knowledge through highly-skilled procurement professionals.
However, on the flip side, there are also a number of negatives raised. Organisations can lose control over day-to-day procurement activities, and through this there is increased risk; there is a potential for the quality of the work to adversely effected; and although procurement has been outsourced, there will still be a requirement to purchase these services and manage the subsequent contract, which may not provide all the time-saving benefits first considered.
Instruct the Experts?
There are a number of organisations in the market that offer procurement as an external service – Capita, GEP and Capgemini to name but a few. The similarities between the services? All of these ‘consulting’ organisations highlight cost savings in their literature and focus on areas such as analytics, research and digital procurement (areas where many organisations lack both expertise and time to carry this out) as a core offering.
From this you would think that a consulting-led service would provide a very attractive option for the public sector. After all, it ticks all the right boxes – improved efficiency, reduced costs and expert-led services. Taken from that point of view, why wouldn’t the public sector choose to instruct the experts, use resources elsewhere and watch the savings roll in?
Apart from being a gross over-simplification of the issue, it doesn’t take into account the wider considerations of skills and training. A decision to outsource in the short-term could lead to a skills shortage in the long-term, and the loss of the opportunity to bring these services back in house without having to set up a new function from scratch (with all the associated costs).
For the public sector, there is an additional consideration – perception. Government, Local Government and Local Authorities have to be particularly careful, perhaps more so than private companies, with public perception and what may be printed in the local and national newspapers. A decision like outsourcing a service, which will be paid for with public money, and for which there may be associated job losses, may not meet the relevant criteria even taking cost savings into account.
The reality is that there isn’t really a right answer for this question and no one correct view in the debate. The right decision now may prove to be the wrong one in hindsight, or due to the cyclical nature of procurement and procurement strategy, may be turned a full 180 degrees a few years down the line.
That said, it’s no time for public procurement professionals to rest on their laurels. There’s plenty to learn and plenty to do – it’s just up to us to make ourselves so invaluable an outsourcing decision couldn’t possibly happen.