Broken Buying

Feb 5, 2009 09:01 · 549 words · 3 minute read government procurement public sector

[![Bust] At the UK Government Bar Camp last weekend, there was a lot of discussion in many of the sessions about public sector procurement - particularly IT procurement.

Basically, it’s broken.

I was acutely aware of this before I turned up at the barcamp, because I’d spend a significant proportion of the previous week wrestling with a full-on OJEU-style procurement exercise.   After collating the last 3 years’-worth of financial results, the company directors’ inside leg measurements,  and writing 2-page CVs for everyone who may or may not be involved in the project should we be awarded the contract, we basically ended up have to provide a detailed specification of a system that hasn’t been designed yet.

It’s daft.  We think it’s daft, the potential client thinks it’s daft, but we’ve got to do it Because It’s The Rules.

But if we look at why the rules exist in the first place, we find that they’re basically there to make sure that the contract doesn’t go to the Chief Executive’s brother-in-law.   The rules are there to create a so-called level playing field, and ensure rigorous transparency around the procurement process.

The fact that the number of contracts that DO get awarded to the Chief Executive’s brother-in-law are vanishingly small seems to have been overlooked - so to prevent a marginal risk of corrupt practices, we’ve created a situation where the results of procurement exercises are massively skewed towards large organisations with the resources and the bureaucracy to jump through these hoops.   If the first threshold test is having been in business for three years, then there’s no way for an innovative start-up to get involved short of selling their souls out to the Big Consultancies.

This would be fine, if the large organisations then went on to do a good job.  But as we’ve seen time and time again, as the size of the project increases towards infinity, the probability of it going horribly wrong approaches unity.   The big consultancies have become bywords for repeating the same problems over and over again.  And what’s more, they’re selling the same old solutions - the ones which arguably have contributed to getting us into the current mess in the first place.

Is there a solution to the problem?   The discussions at GovBarCamp suggested that the problem’s clear, but were less conclusive about the solution.   Part of the issue is that the current system was created with the best of intentions, but has had unanticipated consequences.   There are signs of change, though.  We geeky types like nothing better than giggling at some of the portal-style ineptitude that has been the Direct.gov.uk site over the years, but then over the course of three days they’ve hacked together an “is my kids’ school closed” site which would probably have taken at least a year and six figures if it had gone through “traditional channels”.   But for every Schoolclosure.org.uk, there’s another incipient car crash of a project travelling towards us, whether it’s medical records or MTAS or the National Identity Register.

Perhaps the recession will be a catalyst for change - after bailing out the banks, there isn’t the money left to waste on huge projects.  What money does remain is going to need to go further than it ever did before.

[cross-posted from the Headshift blog]