07. 03. 2008

Procurement in the public sector

I know that everybody finds procurement really tedious. Even serious SD enthusiasts can’t seem to stop their eyes glazing over just as soon as the “p” word makes an appearance in any conversation. But from the Sustainable Development Commission’s perspective, how we spend roughly £160 billion of tax payer’s money is absolutely fundamental – so stop reading now if your eyes are starting to glaze over!

I have just come hot-foot from Defra’s second Suppliers Conference, where I found myself entertainingly sandwiched between Helen Ghosh (Permanent Secretary of Defra) and Ian Andrews (Second Permanent Under Secretary at the MOD), in the company of a whole host of pretty serious private sector buyers to government. It so happens that these two departments are the two departments that are doing best on sustainable procurement, and both have a very good story to tell in terms of their own engagement with suppliers on sustainable procurement – which the SDC will be featuring in its imminent (and very eagerly anticipated!) Sustainable Development in Government (SDiG) report.

That can’t be said about all government departments, let alone all of Local Authorities or health bodies of government agencies. Two years ago, the UK Government committed itself to being a “leader on sustainable procurement in the EU” by 2009 – and, quite honestly, it’s going to be one hell of a stretch to get anywhere close to that leadership goal.

Indeed, getting most departments to start getting serious about sustainable procurement – to start implementing the governments own perfectly adequate Sustainable Procurement Action Plan – has been a bit of a nightmare. Data gathering in management systems have often been defective; there has been no proper leadership provided by most Permanent Secretaries; hard-pressed Procurement Officers are just left to get on with it, struggling against the grain of crude “lowest cost mindsets”.

Things that are already mandated by central government are not implemented (the Office of Government Commerce’s Quick Wins, for example), and Treasury have been utterly supine in enforcing the use of critical tools such as “Whole-Life Costing” for all major capital expenditure projects.

But the good news – the really good news – is that this is about to change. Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary), Ian Andrews and Nigel Smith (new Chief Executive at OGC) have spent the good part of the last couple of months interrogating the causes of this chronic underperformance, acknowledging that it’s no longer acceptable, and putting in place a host of changes across government that we believe will transform this whole area. At last!

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10. 03. 2008
John Slinger

Dear Jonathan,

I heard you on the World at One on Radio Four this lunchtime. You were absolutely superb in exposing the lack of seriousness with which the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is taking energy efficiency with regard to climate change and new coal-fored power stations.

I am an active, young member of the Labour Party and I am increasingly disillusioned by my party's almost complete abdication of its responsibility for inspiring ordinary citizens to conserve energy, maybe even consume less (shock, horror). To listen to John Hutton following you indicated just how far big business and the energy generating companies must have got their teeth into BERR, Mr Hutton and sadly, the Government. We have ceded the territory of environmental issues to the Conservatives, which is saying something very terrifying indeed.

Please keep up the good work of speaking out against the overly powerful and sometimes malign influence of big busines when it comes to tackling climate change. Adair Turner is right when he argues that economic expansion ought not to be the chief aim of our macro economic policy. More intelligent voices need to make this argument.

Best wishes,

John Slinger

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