Tuesday 8 December 2020 4:46 am

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

Aidan Shilson-Thomas is senior researcher at the think tank Reform

The two caricatures of how the government has worked with the private sector during this pandemic do not add up.

In one, championed by ministers in press conferences and interviews on a daily basis, the government has leveraged the best of British and international business to answer the biggest challenge this country has faced in peacetime.

Production lines up and down the country ground to a halt, reorganised, and churned out enough ventilators to see us through the winter. Fashion houses shifted from haute couture to hospital gowns, gin distilleries from spirits to hand sanitiser.

Entire hospitals materialised within weeks — a combined industry effort spanning healthcare, construction, logistics, IT, facilities management. 

And, in a stunning feat of scientific endeavour, industry has produced not one but several viable coronavirus vaccines.

The second caricature could not be more different. The government squandered eye-watering sums of public money on unusable PPE, £7,000-a-day-consultants, and a track and trace system that fails to, well, track and trace.

Companies with no experience and of questionable origin have been awarded multi-million-pound contracts with little transparency or scrutiny of the process. Barely a week passes without another accusation of cronyism, as contracts are awarded without competition.

It is difficult to know who, or what, to believe. Neither of these narratives is wholly right — but there is some truth in both.

The private sector has indisputably been a critical asset during the pandemic. After a decade of austerity, there was little “spare” public sector capacity. And while there’s a separate conversation to be had about whether the right balance was struck between lean efficiency and just-in-case resourcing, there is no doubt that this made private sector capacity indispensable when the government had to act quickly.

Industry was essential not only in responding to the health emergency, but in ensuring that core services were still provided. The Nightingale hospitals and ventilator challenge may have stolen the headlines, but behind the scenes, private sector key workers — from bus drivers to hospital cleaners, school catering staff to refuse collectors — worked in the same conditions, and accepted the same risks, as their colleagues in the public sector.

Yet alongside these successes, there have been undeniable shortcomings. The government, for example, paid well over the odds for suitable PPE — a far more worrying error than the 0.5 per cent of PPE that was unusable. In fact, the average value of our contracts was 16 times higher than the EU average.

If we are to learn the lessons of this pandemic, we must beyond simplistic arguments about whether public-private partnerships are in essence good or bad. And if we are to cope better the next time a crisis hits, the government must stop pretending this was an unmitigated success and act in three important areas.

First, to borrow the Benjamin Franklin quote, a failure to prepare prepared the government to fail. Poor preparedness meant the government had to play catch-up to buy what it needed, often later than required, and at a higher price. It meant that even where partnerships with industry worked very well, like the Nightingales, they were completed too late. Emergency planning needs a revamp, and the private sector must be fully involved from the start.

Second, the government lacked the infrastructure to leverage all the resources at its disposal, which meant it relied too heavily on those closest to hand. The use of a fast-track system does not necessarily indicate corruption, but the recent degree of dependency on it suggests that the government was ill-equipped to assess and coordinate offers from industry.

Our own research here at Reform, published this week, found that, at peak, 70 civil servants were reviewing between 1,500 and 2,000 such offers a day. Smarter processes, that make greater use of technology to assess and triage potential suppliers, could make a real difference in the future.

And third, while direct awards, rather than the use of competitive tenders, might have been necessary in the circumstances, poor transparency is unforgivable. The failure to declare and document in a timely manner has undermined accountability for public spending. Even if those contracts have delivered value, opaque decision-making has dented public trust.

A public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is inevitable. When it happens, those ideologically opposed to private sector involvement in public services will say that Covid-19 has proved they were right all along. They may be wrong — but the procurement failings in this pandemic hand them substantial ammunition and cannot be ignored. 

Too often during this crisis, we were on the back foot. That must not be the case when the next shock hits.

Main image credit: Getty

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