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Staff and trade unions should be involved in public procurement

Wednesday September 23rd, 2015

When public services are contracted to another provider it is important that the interests of key stakeholders including service users, the wider community and staff are taken in account. Indeed the interests of service users and the public more generally must always be paramount. This is not to argue that the interests of staff should be down played for excellence in public services requires well motivated, well treated, well rewarded and involved staff.

John Tizard

John Tizard

Whether the new provider is in the public, charity, social, voluntary and community or business sectors it is in their interest to ensure that staff are engaged in the procurement process, understand the rationale for the decision to switch provider and are able to have their questions and anxieties addressed. This is the case even if and when the staff are opposed in principle to the very idea of changing provider and employer especially if this is via outsourcing to a commercial company.

Staff involvement is essential for any change programme especially when the change involves transfer to a new employer. Change is required across most public services but it does have to be addressed by the transfer of staff or outsourcing but when it is, a principled but pragmatic approach is necessary.

Trade unions understandably are usually opposed to outsourcing public services but in my experience are able and willing to be pragmatic to protect the interests of their members and wider public interests.

It should equally be in the interest of the public sector body which is making the decision to transfer the management of services to another body to ensure that their staff are involved at every stage of the process. Staff are a vital and usually the most important asset within any service organisation.

Many public bodies act in this way. Some but not enough contractors advocate such an approach and may in part judge their bid qualification decision based on how staff and their representative bodies will be involved in the procurement process.
There is a need for greater consistency of approach across the public sector and from the contracting communities in all sectors. Such consistency should be based on best practice not lowest denominator attitudes.

Exemplar practice should start well in advance of any procurement process. Staff and their trade unions should be involved and by this I mean more than some cursory consultation exercise in considering what outcomes are being sought and in being able to propose options for securing these outcomes in ways that are compatible with policy, the law, available resources and most importantly user and public preferences. Ideally staff and trade unions will also be involved in policy development and strategic public sector budget decisions. In my experience staff at all levels across an organisation or service can draw on their experience to identify how outcomes can be enhanced, efficiencies made and user experience improved. Let’s use this experience and expertise and never dismiss it as “self-interest”.

Involvement has to be defined because it does not and cannot mean that any stakeholder group has a veto but it should mean that they are able to challenge, question, propose alternative solutions and have access to key data and information – let’s not have so much hiding behind “commercial confidentiality” though there may have to be some during a competitive procurement process.

I would urge the public sector when procuring to adopt practices such as

  • consulting staff and their trade unions on the business case for the proposed outsourcing and/or transfer of services and employment to another provider – with full disclosure of the financial and other elements of such business cases
  • involving staff / trade union representatives on the procurement project team that determines every aspect of the procurement process including the evaluation and selection stages
  • encouraging staff to propose selection criteria and the means of monitoring compliance with contractual conditions
  • enabling staff and unions to meet current employers of the bidding bodies or those organisations to which it is proposed to transfer a service
  • ensuring that the voice of transferred staff is available to the public bodies contract monitoring teams post-contract
  • testing the employment record of bidders and potential alternative providers (across their businesses and not solely in the public sector projects)

Public bodies should consider employment conditions and work practice issues when selecting alternative providers from whatever sector.

When they are outsourcing services they should build specific requirements and standards into contracts. These could include:

  • the Living Wage and even salary ratios for different levels within the provider body
  • no “two tier” workforce
  • access to decent pensions with appropriate employer contributions
  • talent and development practices
  • recruitment objectives including possibly local recruitment
  • apprenticeships
  • trade union rights and possibly recognition
  • and whatever is considered appropriate for a particular service, contract and place

Staff are not the only key stakeholders that should be included in public sector procurement – it is vital that service users and bodies that represent them are. There is a case too for considering how staff may be able to speak for service users but never instead of them – this can be the case in areas such as social care. It is essential that public procurement and the wider development and delivery of public services never becomes polarised or appears to be polarised between staff and service users. Equally it is also essential that public services are not organised and continued in certain forms simply for the convenience or other interests of employees.

There is a wider debate which is being and should be waged about the efficacy of public service outsourcing but whilst this should continue let’s also consider how the staff and their unions can make a positive contribution to improving public service procurement and consequently minimising some of the risks associated with it.

This will require significant commitment and in many cases cultural changes significant across the public sector and trade unions.

It would be fantastic if the Government were to promote the kind of approach described in this piece but sadly this is very unlikely so others should act.


John Tizard

Twitter: @johntizard
Linked In: John Tizard

Gov Opps’ training partner, PASS (Procurement Advice Support Service) runs relevant procurement training events for the public and private sector. To view the brand new schedule of events, click HERE.

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