No 2: The politics of buying stuff

Well, you wouldn’t still be reading had I called it the politics of procurement now would you? (no, stop – don’t go!). No-one who engages with government procurement comes away impressed with it. It’s a process that wastes £billions and rewards process over outcomes.

Yet we all know that, deep down, it’s a symptom of a political problem. It is a system set up to manage risk in retrospect and trace blame for failure, rather than create a partnership between supplier and customer that allows us to prototype, innovate, and on occasion, fail (well). Because it’s a top-down process, the top are primarily concerned to shield themselves from criticism rather than to be the parents of success.

The risk of failure is very real, but worth the risk as long as failure happens quickly, cheaply and is learnt from with no same mistake being allowed to happen twice.

Procurement is currently about getting people at the top to define a problem that suppliers can solve. Surely it’s time that this process was turned on its head? Politicians and management alike need to let go, to accept they may not have all the answers but by working with colleagues, suppliers and citizens they may be able to develop and deliver solutions to problems better than ever before.

In many ways the government’s procurement process encapsulates everything that must change in the age of New Politics.  Slow, burdensome, anti-innovative and risk averse, it rewards anyone who can parrot the language of the procurer. It rarely takes account of the wider policy objectives that underlie the whole exercise. It scores against lateral thinkers (often smaller, creative suppliers).

It’s no wonder therefore procurement has been singled out on both sides of the Atlantic as a key signifier of change in government culture. Change procurement and you can change much of what is wrong in public service delivery.

In the UK we had the Conservative Party place emphasis on procurement within their Technology Manifesto (it must now extend well beyond this), whereas in the USA the General Services Administration (GSA) are pushing forward on a host of procurement modernisation projects.

While still trialing new ways of working themselves, the GSA (previously seen as the procurement problem not the solution by many) are intent on opening up procurement and bringing in notions of transparency and collaboration. Take the Better Buy Project for instance, where the GSA have developed a space online (a uservoice and a wiki) to co-create the specification for certain goods and services with their suppliers (and presumably their citizens too in the future if not already). Or the new and exciting Challenge.gov, where US government agencies are crowdsourcing solutions to identified problems.

No longer are requirements handed down from on high, but instead developed through an acceptance that ‘many brains are better than one’, they are developing far more honest and achievable set of requirements and saving money with it.

Similarly, FutureGov is developing a social innovation marketplace (Simpl) intended to provide the government with answers from citizens and social innovators to problems it may never knew it had. If it works, procurement will be transformed from the bottom up, with citizens identifying needs and recommending solutions to government rather than merely acting as passive recipients of services.

Clearly while none of this is easy, change is beginning to happen. We can’t hide behind old ideological divides between those who think the state should be doing less or more. Most of us agree that the state has to do something – and all sides of the political spectrum surely want that something to be done well?

This is an idea that needs to be understood and adopted by politicians of all colours. It’s a political innovation rather than a managerial one.

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About Dominic Campbell

Dominic is a digital government and social innovation entrepreneur with a background in government policy, communications and improvement. FutureGov supports government and social innovators to use social technology for digital democracy and public service innovation. You can read more of Dominic’s thoughts on where next for procurement on the We Media site.
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  • http://twitter.com/eiohel Miljenko Williams

    I think the risk-averse dynamics in government procurement are a mirror of a wider societal condition. I know from personal experience how the decision to buy software (for example) is in the hands of people at the top of a pyramid – people who make their decisions based on extremely high-level low-detail presentations, probably cribbed from external salespeople’s sales literature rather than thoroughly examined from the ground up.

    Arguments like “They use this system in other bigger companies than ours” always convince the risk-averse, and are commonly heard when swinging a deal.

    There is also a tendency to engage fully with total quality management once systems are implemented – but the worker at the coalface never gets consulted as to the real needs of a process *before* the procurement is actioned.

    I get the feeling that the top-down nature of decision-making in large organisations, and the lip service paid to involving those who really know how to define needs and manual processes before they are automated or multiplied, plays a large role in getting procurement more generally wrong. We need to change the approach, that is clear. We also need to change who we consult.

    • http://twitter.com/garfen Gary Fenton

      Like the saying goes, no one has been fired for buying IBM. i.e. buy from the big boys, play it safe. This makes it hard for the small but innovative companies to get a foot in the door and start to grow, while buyers are paying premium prices and don’t always get a quality customer service experience to back it up.

  • http://twitter.com/blamb brian

    Really timely article – with less on offer in spending terms governemnt procurers really neeed to change. I suspect though that you might get blank looks if you suggested this in NI.

  • TheVadyGirl

    This is an area that is being looked at via pre-commercial procurement and the work being down by the Technology Strategy Board

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