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Quality through equality

Saturday August 22nd, 2009

By Mandy Wright, Associate Director with responsibility for Equalities and Cohesion, IDeA

Why procurement officers should be promoting equality when buying goods and services.

Sometimes it can be hard to see the relevance of equalities guidance when buying a consignment of pencils, but a new bill making its way through Parliament places a specific duty on public bodies to drive equalities through procurement.

Every year the public sector spends £175 billion on goods and services, and the Government is determined that this purchasing power be used to improve equality. Research shows that there has been a lack of clarity in the past concerning the correct processes to follow; the new legislation is intended to make it absolutely clear how procurement can achieve the Government’s equalities goals.

Practical advice and guidance on interpreting the legislation is being launched by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) in the form of an online information service. The website will be constantly updated with new examples and case studies as well as detailed practical guidance on incorporating the new duty into procurement practices.

The new Equality Bill, which is due to come into effect in 2010, streamlines and simplifies nine current pieces of legislation into one in a bid to make Britain a fairer society, through a single equality duty which, in part, requires public bodies to consider the diverse needs and requirements of their employees and communities when planning services.

It creates a new duty on public bodies to tackle discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and encourage good community relations. It requires local authorities to consider socio-economic equalities as well as discrimination on the grounds of race, disability, gender, age, religious belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment when providing services.

The key specific duties for public bodies, which are still being consulted on, include requirements to

  • consider how public procurement activities can help deliver their objectives
  • consider the use of equality-related award criteria – authorities should actively think about including a specific element on equalities in their award criteria
  • consider incorporating equality-related contract conditions, ie those conditions suppliers must adhere to if they win the contract

The closing date for the consultation is 30 September.

Most councils are looking at equality in their procurement processes, so the IDeA has picked out some examples of what can be done. What councils can and should do will be clarified by the bill, but elements can be processed now.

Case study one – Wakefield

At City of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, there is a strong corporate approach to procurement, where equalities issues are embedded at every stage. All procurement projects are subject to a risk assessment, part of which addresses equality issues. Once tenders have come in for consideration, the team scrutinises them for evidence of outcomes and added value.

Alan Kirkham, Service Director, Strategic Procurement and eServices at Wakefield MDC, said: “We ask the companies what added value they will bring to the council, for example environmental benefits. We’re trying to start from the position that equality is relevant in every contract.

“We’re also looking at how we generate more outcome focus in terms of questions we ask at tender. For example, we had a tender out recently for upgrading our IT and one question we asked was: ‘how will your solution help support people with a disability?’.”

The responses to this question – which ranged from proposing special handsets to video conferencing technology for deaf people who use a video link for sign language – were scored, and the answers given a high weighting. The contract went to Siemens, which was able to supply the technology to do all these things.

Another key area highlighted in the new bill which Wakefield is already targeting is how procurement can address socio-economic deprivation. For example, a contract that was awarded recently for the provision of school milk went to a small social enterprise – Fresh Pastures – which employs and trains people with learning disabilities.

Mr Kirkham added: “Sustainability was part of the evaluation model. So through that we’re helping people who might otherwise find it difficult to find employment.

“We have a massive engagement process with companies so we do workshops on how to bid. We make sure that as many local companies as possible are aware of opportunities with the council. As a result of that we moved spend in the region from 40 per cent in 2004 to around 50 per cent. That’s approaching £80 million value to the local economy.”

The council is also working with the Department for Work and Pensions on providing opportunities for supported businesses – those in which at least half of the employees have a disability: Mr Kirkham said: “Very much the focus is on how we can make a positive difference in respect of equality in the district. Also, we capture the benefits; for example, with the school milk contract we have all the added value, and the containers are recyclable.”

Research into equalities and procurement by the IDeA shows that a strong corporate approach, such as at Wakefield, leads to more consistent application of equalities considerations across departments and services.

Case study two – Oxford

At Oxford City Council the procurement team works hard to attract local businesses to supply services, with the dual advantage of reducing its carbon footprint and providing employment locally.

Nicky Atkin, Corporate Procurement Manager at Oxford, said: “When we have identified the need to go out to the market for something, the first thing we do is see if there’s any business locally which can supply it. If there’s a lot of interest we will set up a workshop to provide information about the forthcoming tender and provide training on the tender process, plus some hints and tips before the formal tender process begins.”

If a business seems too small to provide the required service, the council might suggest it teams up with another company to put in a consortium bid. This is normally suggested as an option at the workshop when ‘they’re all in the same room together’.

For some contracts the council looks at how it can set up a framework of suppliers to provide the service. This has the advantage of creating more opportunities and gives the council back-up options.

Over 60 per cent of the business which is done in the region is with public bodies, according to Strategic Procurement and Shared Services Manager Jane Lubbock. She said: “There are lots of opportunities, but what we find is that some of the small suppliers might be wary of doing business with us because we’re quite large.

“In our corporate plan we have to increase our local spend by ten per cent – it’s one of the things we are doing to create a more equal playing field.”

Another aspect the team considers important in equality is being a good employer.

Mr Atkin added: “One of the things we ask is how the company providing the service is going to engage with SMEs in the local supply chain; then we look at their employment practices, for example opportunities for apprenticeships in building contracts.”

Last year the council carried a motion that any large contracts awarded should pay a ‘living wage’.” One example is a contract awarded to Fusion, a not-for-profit trust, to run leisure services. Fusion is contracted to pay any employee over 18 a minimum £7 an hour.

Ms Lubbock said: “Organisations which are competitive on price may be doing so through the level of salaries being paid, and this requirement helps us to obtain best value while ensuring the employees are paid a living wage.”

The contract also stipulates that any major contracts that Fusion does not deliver directly but outsources down the line also have the same condition applied.

Case study three – Camden

The London Borough of Camden has procured a fleet of buses to transport the elderly and children with special needs specially designed using feedback from users as well as staff.

Children from two schools and their carers, as well as elderly people from care homes, were consulted on the design of the buses at a series of open days with manufacturers which were arranged before the specification stage of the tender process.

The aim was to have one fleet of buses to meet the council’s statutory transport needs – taking children with special needs to school and transporting the elderly to day centres.

The users, as well as the service commissioners, drivers and mechanics, looked at specialist seating options and a range of equipment and answered a questionnaire.

The feedback from the user groups made it clear that two different fleets would be required to properly meet their needs.

The open days also made it possible for manufacturers to meet the providers of seats and specialist equipment so they could get together and provide a package which met the needs of the council.

The client wanted a cheaper service and this type of collaboration made it possible to provide buses which could be used in more diverse ways, with more flexible seating making it easier to convert buses quickly to accommodate wheelchairs. This means the buses can drop off a group of children and then go away to transport another group with different seating configuration requirements.

Conclusion

The case studies above highlight how equality in procurement can successfully be implemented once the legislation comes into effect in 2010. These authorities also show that some public bodies are already considering the varied needs of their employees and communities when planning services.

Further information

For further information, please visit: www.idea.gov.uk/knowledge

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