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Why Public Sector Procurement Consolidation Won’t Take Forever

Driving change within the public sector takes forever… and ever! Right? Tim Hamper begs to differ as he explains why procurement consolidation will only accelerate in coming years, if not months!

A few weeks ago another UK public sector body, Fastershire (a partnership between Gloucestershire County Council and Herefordshire Council, backed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport), began implementing a major new combined agreement – this one with Gigaclear, a rural Internet Services Provider. The deal is to roll out “ultrafast” Fibre To The Premise broadband to thousands of some of the hardest to reach homes and businesses across the two counties, at speeds of up to 1000Mbps.

After decades of individual procurement teams in separate organisations diligently applying public procurement rules (often with relatively small spend and time-consuming award processes), it’s now becoming normal to combine with others. The results are often not only larger economies of scale, but also better access to relevant products and services.

Public sector procurement consolidation

Combined (in other words consolidated) public procurements have for some time been delivering in areas where it’s fairly easy to see a commodity – energy, office supplies, facilities. They’ll really take off and show benefit when they fully embrace what used to be called “ICT” – now better labeled Digital. Leaders of public bodies won’t be interested in the details of latest products or software solutions, or even in traditional efficiencies. They’ll be concerned about big outcomes. How to better support local economies and communities? How to join up health and social care? How to keep the trains running?

The facts about consolidation are impressive:

  • Although not everyone is a fan, in 2016/17 Crown Commercial Services, the public sector aggregator, channelled £12.4bn of public sector procurement spend through its commercial arrangements including frameworks – £6bn from central government, £6.4bn from the wider public sector.
  • The National Procurement Strategy for Local Government in England was launched in 2014. By 2016, 53% of single tier/district councils and 48% of district councils said their organisation had made savings or achieved other community benefits by “partnering and collaboration”.
  • Owned by six county and city council authorities, one public sector buying group based in Leicestershire, ESPO, now has over £1.4bn of spend going through its frameworks. The organisation consolidates requirements from over 9,000 education customers across the country.
  • Another buying group, Kent County Council’s Commercial Services, is one of the largest trading organisations of its kind in the UK. As the contracting authority, Kent operates in partnership with 12 district councils and 289 parish/town councils. It recently published details of framework contract awards for water and sewerage services potentially worth up to £208m on behalf of a number of public sector organisations.

The tipping point for consolidation

The often-heard view is that change in the public sector takes forever (one digital industry leader recently claimed this is due to a “lack of vision, entrepreneurial thinking and execution”, another that “the last ten years have seen public sector organisations progress only 20 per cent of the way through the business transformation journey, with the remaining 80 per cent to be delivered over the next ten years.”). But with the focus on outcomes, the necessary speed and type of market engagement will mean the trend for procurement consolidation will only accelerate. The benefits will be big: public sector bosses are already seeing better outcomes and stretched budgets being brought back into balance. In Gloucestershire, County Councillor Lynden Stowe, Cabinet Member for Economy, Skills and Growth says “faster broadband is vital for our communities and businesses to thrive and grow. I’m delighted that the Fastershire project, in partnership with Gigaclear, will be taking faster broadband to even more homes and businesses in some of the most rural areas of the county where larger suppliers were not prepared to go.”

We’re probably already at the tipping point where most public procurements look across organisational boundaries, so the need for separate individual procurements will diminish. A lead or buying group will more and more be seen as the right place for consolidating spend, not just for commodity items but strategic stuff as well.

Suppliers will react quickly to this situation and respond to consolidation opportunities – not least because larger volumes are more attractive, and with fewer organisation touch points, the cost to them of doing business will be significantly reduced.

Dramatic change has already started, though not every public sector management team involved in commercial activity has fully embraced it. They should. Consolidation in public procurement won’t take forever – the focus on outcomes and market speed will ensure that it’s now measured in months, not years. Certainly not in decades.

The Big Squeeze in Public Procurement

As budgets continue to shrink, how can professionals working in public procurement do more with less?

We live in a world of apparent contradictions. The amount of money being spent by global governments is rising year on year. And yet, in the majority of these countries, public sector institutions are seeing budgets shrink at the same time.

Governments are increasing spending in order to continue to provide vital services to the public. In the UK, public spending reached £761.9 billion in 2016. This is forecast to rise again in 2017, with total UK public spending is expected to be £784.1 billion.

However, there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration when assessing these figures. The average age of the population is on the rise. Health services are dealing with a rise in chronic diseases as a result of lifestyle choices. Investment is not only being put into social care, but also into improving the lives of the entire population. All this means that any increase in spending is swallowed up as quickly as it is released.

In addition, slow global growth means that Governments have to be aware of future spending too. What this means, ultimately, is that spending at a local level is reduced. So what does this mean for public sector procurement?

More for Less

In Scotland, funding for Councils from the Scottish Government has decreased by an estimated £180 million for 2017-18. Some of this will be offset by rising Council Tax across the country, but many Councils and Local Authorities will still be looking to make major savings.

Maintaining, and improving, public services is only the start. The public sector in a situation where they not only have to achieve more with less, but they also have to invest wisely to help future savings targets.

Technology is just one area where this can be achieved. Many cities are investing heavily in technology that will align with existing infrastructure. Following in the footsteps of pioneering cities like Barcelona and Stockholm, a number of UK cities are moving to become ‘Smart Cities’.

Intelligent Street Lighting, sensors measuring urban data including city centre footfall, air quality, and new applications for refuse collection and public parking, are just a few examples of how technology helps to build a smart city.

These technologies have a dual-benefit for Local Authorities, and other businesses in cities. Data collected can be used to drive savings initiatives, while at the same time helping to improve the quality of life for residents.

Public Procurement’s Three Cs

What does this mean for procurement? The profession will be at the forefront when it comes to savings initiatives, and will play a vital, and ever-increasing, role in these projects. But at the same time, procurement still needs to prove its worth to, and make these savings stick.

If you’re looking for somewhere to get started, or to drive continuous improvement, here are three Cs that are applicable no matter your organisation, industry, or category (or even sector).

  1. Challenge

The best saving procurement can make is by not spending money in the first place. And the best time to do this is at the very beginning of a project. By challenging requests, procurement can begin to weed out wants from needs.

Does the organisation actually need this? Does it really need the 24-carat, diamond encrusted version, when an off-the-shelf one will do just fine? Is there an alternative solution to the question that could cost less while doing the same job?

Get your client, end customer, and specification writers to really think through their requirements. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to the next C.

  1. Collaborate

Collaboration should be both an internal and external activity. Procurement should be involved from the start of the project, and work closely with other departments to get the best for the organisation.

The public sector can also collaborate more too. Instead of all setting up individual projects for the same thing, why not share what’s been done in the past? Frameworks, Dynamic Purchasing Systems, and collaborative purchasing can help save time, resources, and money.

It’s also time to be working more collaboratively with our suppliers. Procurement needs to focus, where appropriate, on building long-term relationships. By building these relationships, suppliers will feel more open to collaboration, and potentially start bringing innovative solutions to the table.

And the other thing collaboration is going to help is with the final C.

  1. Cost

As in total cost, lifecycle cost, or Total Cost of Ownership. It’s critical to long-term savings ambitions that the total cost of goods or services is understood. Depreciation, residual value, maintenance and disposal costs all need to be taken into account before any decisions are made.

Procurement should also be focusing more on the cost element with suppliers too. Profit margin is not necessarily the best place to start looking for savings. Rather than creating the perception of going after profit, switching the focus to cost can provide more opportunities for discussion and even innovation.

Getting Started

While these are very good areas to start in, they are just the start of a larger exercise. However, they will help to provide the foundation for best practice, and to change the way projects are put in place across the organisation.