Thursday 6 June 2013

Why centralised procurement is so wildly expensive

At the end of April, I chaired the Public Services Show at the Business Design Centre, and found myself introducing the government's new Chief Operating Officer, Stephen Kelly.

This was a little unnerving because I don't really understand what a COO does in government, and his hand-shake was worryingly mid-Atlantic.  But he told the story about his government computer taking seven minutes to turn on - aware that Tesco's computers turn on within seconds and cost a fraction of the vast sums the government is spending.

It was a phenomenon I had noticed when I had a government laptop during the Barriers to Choice Review, and it is certainly strange.

Kelly has now told the story again, pointing out that he spends three days a year just waiting for his computer.  It is a telling story and it seems to be assumed in government that this is an argument for centralised procurement.  I'm not sure it is.

So pop back two decades with me for a moment, to a wintry evening at the end of 1993, when Al Gore was Vice-president, when a group of radical efficiency types went to see him and persuaded him to launch what became the National Performance Review.

Among those there was the pioneer of entrepreneurial local government Ted Gaebler, co-author of the influential book Reinventing Government.  Another was Bob Stone.

Stone had been the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for defence for installations, working out that about a third of the entire defence budget was wasted because of bad regulations, probably amounting to $100bn a year. He experimented by cutting the regulation book for forces housing from 800 pages to 40.

One commander asked permission to let craftsmen decide for themselves which spray paint cans could be thrown away, rather than having each one certified by the base chemist. It was Stone who wrote the original principles that would dominate the National Performance Review.

What was fascinating about the Review was that it was overwhelmingly local.  It encouraged people on the frontline to find savings, rather than simply imposing spending rules on them - and it made a great deal of what they found.

Stone’s experience at the Pentagon coincided with the revelations of the cost of simple items when it went through armed forces bureaucracy. The $7,622 coffee percolator bought by the air force was the most spectacular, but the one that really caught the public imagination was the $436 hammer bought for the navy, or – as the Pentagon called it – a ‘uni-directional impact generator’. 

One of the first schemes the Review launched was an annual Hammer Award for public sector employees who had made huge efforts to work more effectively.  We should do something similar here.  

This is what the news report on Kelly said:

"He highlighted the bill for a PC power cable which costs £8 wholesale, was being sold on Amazon for £20 but for which the Cabinet Office was charged £57 by a supplier."

I'm sure that is the tip of the iceberg.  There will be some of our very own uni-directional impact generators out there.

But the other thing I learned watching procurement happen at close quarters at the Cabinet Office was that, when once you might get a bit of printing done cheaply and quickly, it now took a huge process and the quotations through the formal process were astronomical.

So despite what Philip Green might say, this is not about scale of procurement.  Things work best and cheapest, in my experience, when they are sourced immediately and informally.  There will be exceptions to this rule when beating a supplier more egregiously over the head will provide more savings, as Tesco might do.  But this is not a universal law.

Quite the reverse, in fact.  In most cases, big procurement is more expensive.  

Not just because suppliers get away with it or because the lumbering monster that is government procurement often makes a hearty meal of its own tail without realising it.  But because the best deals often come from small companies with lower overheads, and big procurement systems - despite the rhetoric - find them extraordinarily hard to deal with.

The result is fewer, bigger companies, more semi-monopolies, and that inevitably means higher prices.

More about this, and about the Hammer Award and Gore's Performance Review, in my book The Human Element.

1 comment:

Phil Beesley said...

"Kelly has now told the story again, pointing out that he spends three days a year just waiting for his computer."

You've got my ID, David. Ask me how IT works and I will give you my thoughts.