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Procurement in the time of pandemic

Public procurement is firmly in the spotlight in the COVID-19 crisis. Local authorities spend around £100bn or 47% of their total budget annually on procurement. In the pandemic crisis, it is crucial that this money delivers the maximum benefit for communities, whether providing for public health (including testing-tracking-tracing responsibilities), for social care (including care home provision), or as one of the key economic levers through which the local economy is to be restarted. Ineffective procurement arrangements present risks for the delivery/continuity of public services in the crisis.

Where rapid scaling-up of services is necessary, the limits of some local authorities’ capacities and their supply-chains are often being tested as costs, staff and supply shortages increase. Councils must simultaneously act to protect essential supply chains where demand has collapsed (e.g. transport or facilities management). Such challenges require smart and agile procurement responses to build strong, effective and efficient relationships and generate positive impacts for local communities.

This study will investigate these urgent issues, and how gains might be achieved in the response to COVID-19. The team will examine emerging opportunities to maximise the impact of, and leverage additional value from, local authority procurement. The project will encourage reflection on the ability of the ‘procurement ecosystem’ to respond in a crisis; clarifying critical-success-factors and pressure points and discussing what to do next.

Capturing these lessons takes on even greater significance now that the supply chain implications of the Brexit deal are becoming clearer and new policy directions for procurement are being explored in the recent Cabinet Office Green Paper.

Led by myself, and facilitated by the Centre for Partnering, the project, Optimising Procurement Outcomes for COVID-19 and Beyond: Lessons from the Crisis also involves academics from Oxford, Northumbria and Cardiff Universities. It is funded by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to the pandemic, and The MJ is a media partner.

With extensive stakeholder involvement and support, this project will examine what is working well, less well, why, with what effects and implications. Specifically, it asks:

  • How effectively, are local authorities deploying their commissioning and procurement functions to address the challenges posed by COVID-19? What are the successes to be celebrated? Where are the tensions that need to be managed? Where is the system at risk of breaking down?
  • What are the opportunities for improved procurement performance? How do local authorities optimise every aspect of procurement spend?
  • Can local authorities adopt more innovative, strategic, entrepreneurial and relational approaches to strengthen local resilience and avoid a weak and incapacitated system?
  • What role can greater data-analytic capacity play in supporting a more agile and effective response?

The crisis has confirmed local authorities’ crucial role at the heart of their communities’ safety, wellbeing and resilience, and this research aims to help the sector to get as much as it can from the resources available.

There has been a hugely positive response to this research and ideas of leveraging procurement to liberate additional value. Yet it is clear that many complexities and barriers confront this widely-shared goal. Understanding the issues needs a wide lens as well as analytical depth. Thus, the project is taking a whole-of-the-UK approach to the research, speaking with central Government, regional structures and the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors as well as local authorities and their suppliers.

Every contribution to this effort is highly valued. The team wants to hear people’s stories in the survey. With support from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, a large-scale local government survey will launch in March 2021.

Each survey answer will help make a difference – not only about how local government prepares for, responds to, recovers from, and mitigates the effects of the pandemic, but how it moves forward beyond it.

Dr Richard Simmons is senior lecturer in public and social policy at the University of Stirling

The survey project’s approach

Four methods – surveys, interviews, webinars, mini-investigations – will be used across two data collection phases.

Phase one (February-July 2021):

Consultation with local government (facilitated by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) and with local authority supplier networks (facilitated by the purchasing organisation YPO and ORBIS, which collectively manage a £3.5bn local authority procurement spend).

Phase two (July 2021-January 2022):

High-level online workshops/webinars with local government, suppliers, regional and central government and the voluntary sector. These will tense-check/stress-test findings from the surveys and key informant interviews, and identify/prioritise examples for further deep-dive mini-investigations.

This article was first published in The MJ on 17 February 2021