Tuesday 15 December 2020 5:10 am

Procuring in a crisis: The government must learn from the PPE uproar

Natalie Taylor is public sector managing director at Foundry4

Covid-19 has revealed a great deal about how governments respond to crises. 

The results have been varied: from unprecedented schemes to support furloughed workers up and running a matter of days, to a contact tracing app still plagued with issues months later. 

In fact, while the pandemic may have shown how quickly things can be delivered, this urgency has unveiled holes in the government’s response. And nowhere is this more glaring than in the procurement process.

Read more: The government must fix the broken procurement system before the next crisis hits

The recent scathing report from the National Audit Office found that several firms with political links were fast-tracked for lucrative PPE contracts. It cited a concerning lack of transparency — or, at times, any explanation — as to why suppliers were chosen. Whether in pursuit of speed, under pressure from stakeholders in and out of the cabinet, or more worryingly due to favours to friends and family, the report identified shortcuts that should never have been taken. 

Lessons must be learned from this to improve the process and move on from a history of procurement scandals.

Luckily, there is hope. In recent years, the government has actually made significant advances in the procurement process involving technology suppliers. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has introduced platforms such as the digital marketplace and G-Cloud, improving the speed of procurement and making the market more open and accessible.

However, these standards have not been sufficiently rolled out to the rest of the government. So to solve the deeper issues at play within public sector procurement and ensure that shortcuts aren’t taken again, even in a crisis, those at the top must consider the following factors.

First, when anticipating a crisis, practice makes perfect. Take a leaf from the book of the Ministry of Defence and Nato, which both run huge exercises to prepare themselves for emergency scenarios. 

Procurement from the private sector is a huge part of responding to a crisis, so the government must be trained to run simulations for the likes of Covid-19, to understand which corners can and can’t be cut. We don’t know how frequently these crises could occur — and if the military plans for worst-case scenarios, the government should do too, including how to buy critical goods or services.

Second, the government must do more to guarantee a transparent process. The strides made by GDS to reform procurement culture, including its recently drafted emergency buying guidance, are a start, but we must learn from recent issues and open up the supply market. More choice, after all, means more opportunities for innovation. 

By spreading public sector spend between organisations of different sizes and locations, we can also stimulate the whole economy. Furthermore, building this diversity into supply chain requirements, as well as other specific standards such as sustainability, can ensure that there is quality control among those that supply public organisations.

Finally, all the innovative procurement practices count for nothing if you can’t get MPs and the entire Civil Service on board. Comprehensive change in the public sector requires departments to collaborate, and more importantly, a mandate from the cabinet. Without departments working together, or senior ministerial sponsorship, it’s impossible for reform to succeed.

Ultimately, the questionable track record of government procurement has highlighted that there is a difference between transparency and trust. For all the efforts to make procurement data available to would-be suppliers, more proactivity is needed to inspire trust by making it accessible to everyone.

As the Brexit deadline approaches, the UK has a significant opportunity for reform. EU processes have a reputation for legitimacy, but they are also lengthy and restrictive. Newly independent, the UK can act with agility to ensure that unethical procurement is never resorted to again. 

If the government can adopt its own robust standards, building on the foundation laid by GDS, it can leave excuses behind and make the UK ready for any crisis.

Read more: Survive Tier 3 with these 34 amazing lockdown delivery kits

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.