Leader: Public procurement needs to go back to basics
CM editor Elaine Knutt dissects the recommendations in a new MP report on procurement.
What are we to make of this week’s report into public procurement, from the All-Party Group for Excellence in the Built Environment?
First, it will re-acquaint you with some old friends. Design quality and the Construction Commitments have never exactly gone away, but they haven’t been much in evidence in recent discussions on public sector procurement.
Secondly, many recommendations fall into the category of “things you know should be happening, but probably aren’t”. Getting the right project brief, procuring on operating costs as well as capital costs, sensible pre-qualification questionnaires that don’t put excessive demands on prospective bidders – it’s hardly breaking new ground, yet the evidence heard by the inquiry demonstrates that they’re not yet happening “out there”, where thousands of public bodies spend £46bn a year of public money without any nationally-agreed standards on what “good” procurement looks like.
So now we have a report that goes over ground we’ve already travelled many times before, but still manages to act as a rather large yellow sticky reminder note.
In the past three years, spanning the time in office of chief construction adviser Paul Morrell and the post-credit crunch “more for less” mentality, we’ve had a permanent revolution in public sector procurement. We’ve had the calls for a 15-20% cut in out-turn costs and the publication of benchmarked costs, the Government Construction Strategy launched in May 2011 (PBAs, PAS 91, BIM mandated from 2016, pilots on three new procurement models and Integrated Project Insurance.) Plus we’re shortly about to hear about the implementation of Soft Landings on major projects.
Individually, these are all sensible moves. Collectively, they all spawn new procedures and add to the number of targets projects and clients are expected to hit. Design quality and the Construction Commitments? The bells are ringing, but distantly…
At the same time, the experience of contractors bidding on the ground is that there’s still tremendous variation in the way public sector clients operate. Every framework is bid and applied differently, often starting with subjective pre-qualification criteria. And although we now have benchmarked project costs in the public domain, they’ve still been through a complex statistical anonymising process that makes it impossible to tell which public sector clients are delivering value for money, and which still think that holding up their framework agreement answers every awkward question.
So, as this report reminds us, we’re trying to make progress towards better procurement via BIM and the Government Construction Strategy when there’s still not enough buy-in to good basic principles, tremendous variation in on-the-ground procedures, and only partial openness on out-turn costs. Going forward, we need to concentrate on sound, simple principles to raise overall standards, and a culture of transparency to judge the resulting buildings and value to the public purse. Overall, that’s likely to have a much better effect on tax-payer’s buying power than adding BIM and IPI to our current patchwork of good, bad and indifferent public sector procurement.