The Government’s new Green Paper on public procurement promises a lot, but is an opportunity lost

The devil is in the detail with the Government's new Green Paper on public procurement, Caroline Howe, Policy and National Programmes Manager, argues.

Caroline Howe

Procurement rules set out how government - whether at local, regional, or national level - pays for and buy products and services. For anyone that has heard of them, they probably bring a sense of dread. Seen as tightly prescriptive, they are often at the centre of challenges faced by small and local charities bidding for contracts.

 

Brexit means that we no longer need to follow EU procurement rules – the rules that all too often legal and procurement teams have fallen back on with ‘computer says no’ responses when commissioners have wanted to work more collaboratively and creatively.

 

Now, through its Transforming Public Procurement Green Paper, the Government is looking at what replaces the EU procurement rules across the UK. This is hugely significant, not only for contracting authorities like central government departments or local authorities, but also for the thousands of small and local charities caught up in commissioning and procurement processes to sustain their vital services.

An opportunity lost

For years we have heard of the challenges small and local charities face in commissioning and procurement.

 

New procurement rules should be an opportunity to introduce new rules that overcome the myriad of challenges small and local charities have faced.

 

Government has laudable aims, as mentioned in its Green Paper:

 

“to speed up and simplify our procurement processes, place value for money at their heart, and unleash opportunities for small businesses, charities and social enterprises to innovate in public service delivery”.

 

But sadly, we think the proposed new approach to procurement is an opportunity lost.

 

Concerns

Last month, Paul, our Chief Executive, gave evidence to the House of Lords Public Services Committee  and explained why we are so concerned about the new approach. The Committee has now shared these concerns with Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister at the Cabinet Office too.

 

In trying to simplify the rules, the Government proposes bringing together lots of different rules into one.

 

The collateral damage in doing so is to assume that purchasing paper clips for Whitehall requires the same process as funding wrap-around support for someone facing homelessness in Port Talbot.

 

Or that buying missiles requires the same process as commissioning domestic abuse support for Asian women in Manchester. But these are fundamentally different things; they require fundamentally different approaches.

 

Yet again, we are seeing process topple purpose. Rather than first thinking about what we want to achieve, whether that is buying products we need for our office or ensuring local communities have the person-centred support they need from organisations set up to deliver public benefit, the process is coming first.

 

Flexibility

The new rules aim to allow flexibility – which is good. But the problem is confidence to use that flexibility, especially where alternative approaches are not explicitly set out.

 

As leading lawyers have demonstrated, flexibility already exists under the current procurement rules () – but confidence to use it is low. Where government has explicitly encouraged use of this flexibility, like in guidance issued during the pandemic, local authorities have made use of it.

 

We’ve heard of local authorities working more collaboratively with local charities, trusting them to deliver what is needed and working in partnership, just as Locality set out in their report last year.

 

Similarly, where Government has explicitly encouraged more creative approaches like Innovation Partnerships, they have shown some fantastic results like in Keep it Local council, Oldham. (). While the Government acknowledge training is needed to build confidence in more flexible approaches, it’s unlikely this training will do enough to prompt the culture change that is needed in risk averse and over-stretched contracting authorities.

 

What does this mean for small charities?

Not only will the proposed approach fail to tackle so many of the existing challenges with procurement, it also risks making them worse.

 

Getting the new approach to procurement right is critical to ensuring people have access to the person-centred, specialist support they need - particularly for those people facing complex social issues.

 

At a time of rising needs and increasingly stretched budgets, the costs of getting this wrong are too high – whether that’s costly processes for contracting authorities which are not proportionate to the service required or the human cost when procurement approaches shut out the very services that could help people overcome the challenges they face.

 

We’re working with partners in the sector to respond to the Green Paper consultation. It may not sound exciting, but it is significant. If your charity receives money from any government body, it’s likely to impact you too. NCVO and Locality have set out some more of our thinking in their blogs.

 

If you have experiences you want to feed into our responses – whether that’s what you do or don’t want to see from a new procurement process, we’d love to hear from you. We’d also be happy to share our concerns with you in more detail to help inform your own response.

 

Join us, Children England, Clinks, Locality, NAVCA and NCVO on 25th February at 2:30 if you want to discuss this more. We’ll be setting out how we’re planning to respond to the consultation and want to hear from charities about whether our response resonates with you.

 

You can sign up online here, or get in touch at: policy@lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk

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