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UK gov 'still failing' at procurement, says Commons committee

Slower than everyone else, can't build supplier relations...

Systemic failures in government procurement and contract management continue "unabated" three years after the coalition vowed to tackle inefficiencies in the way public sector people buy tech.

This is according to the House of Commons' Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) led by Bernard Jenkins MP (Con), which conceded the initiatives introduced by the Cabinet Office had improved processes – but not by nearly enough.

The committee said government spends £227bn a year on goods and services but could save taxpayers "significant sums of money" if ministers are able to finally get on top of the problems.

The PASC report found that EU directives which rule over UK procurement reinforced a "process oriented, risk averse culture" among those that write the cheques, causing delays and rising costs.

"To be fair, there are failures of procurement in the private sector too but that is no excuse," said Jenkin.

On average, procurement cycles take 50 per cent longer in Blighty than in France or Germany, the committee was told by suppliers. Timescales fell from 180 days to 153 in fiscal '12 but the aim is to get below 120 days.

"In Government, the same kind of failures seems to be repeated again and again. In the EU we all operate under the same rules but the UK government seems to take the longest and we fail to maximise the benefit of public procurement for our own economy," said Jenkin.

The committee said civil servants had taken strides to improve data, pull together purchasing power and force major suppliers to lower their margins. But the "stream of procurement and contract management failures continues unabated", it stated.

It added that procurers consistently "lack…understanding" on how to collate their requirements, measure suppliers attributes, build relationships with those firms or currently specific the desired outcome. Jenkin said government needs a "change programme" to hand civil servants a more coherent strategy and to attempt to ensure any improvements are universal and lasting.

"Whilst we welcome the government's initiatives to centralise procurement progress so far has been painfully slow and sporadic," the PASC chairman added. "Only a coherent strategic plan, setting out clear objectives and how they are achieved, backed by united leadership across the top of government, can achieve the necessary change."

This will not be a walk in the park as government departments continue to control the relationships with individual suppliers and cite "legal restrictions as a barrier to collaboration".

And with so many disparate frameworks at play, and indeed different framework organisers - GPS and Pro5 to name but a few - pulling together purchasing power will not be easy.

A Cabinet Office spokesman told us that at the time of the last election "government procurement was uncoordinated and bureaucratic".

He added the department was pleased the PASC highlighted progress in data collection and renegotiating contracts - the positive elements - but will study the areas for improvement highlighted in the report. ®

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