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John Tizard: COVID-19 public procurement – learn lessons to improve

Tuesday February 2nd, 2021

Over recent months the spotlight of public opinion and the media has understandably being shining on public procurement during the COVID-19

John Tizard
John Tizard

Some of the cases reported have raised major questions about value for money, probity, political influence in procurement decisions, and much more. They have led to much speculation about what has gone on and whether or not the government hs secured value for money.

Transparency is a good cleanser and contributor to restoring public confidence. Therefore, it would be prudent for the government to publish all contracts above a threshold value of – say – £5m; and to commit to independent audits of these contracts, the effectiveness of the goods and services procured. 

In the longer term, there must be a wider public enquiry into every aspect of the Government’s and the wider public sector’s response to and handling of the pandemic. Last May I wrote on this Government Opportunities site about how public procurement could not escape such an enquiry[SA1]  This has become more apparent with every week that has passed since May for almost daily another media report indicates some problem and cause for concern.

I hope that a public enquiry is established rapidly and that it is not delayed. It is important that lessons which could influence future behaviours and actions are not missed or not identified until after they could have had a positive effect. 

This desire for some urgent answers and lessons is very much the case for procurement. I suggest that an independent review of procurement should be established immediately with a remit to report on early findings, take a long-term view of all significant contracts, and feed into a more comprehensive public enquiry.

I would advocate that this early review should assess and report on, and offer practical proposals for improvement matters such as:

  • the procurement, contract management and performance of those contracts for goods such as PPE and services such as ‘test and trace’ which have understandably attracted media and public attention
  • the application of the standards in public life and probity issues relating to these contracts
  • why services were outsourced and/or consultants engaged in preference to using existing public sector expertise and capacity, and/or in preference to expanding public sector capacity
  • the decision making trees for these contracts and the rationale for any decisions to fast track bidders (eg VIP fast track bidding) and/or to avoid competitive procurement processes (even truncated ones)
  • the capacity and competency of the officials involved in the procurement and contract management processes to evaluate both commercial and technical aspects of contracts and performance management not least because of the sheer volume of the procurements
  • the scope for innovation allowed to providers, how this has or has not been addressed commercially and contractually, and the benefits of such innovation
  • the role of public investment in research and development, capacity building and innovation in key aspects of the procurements – this could be significant in terms of the incredibly fast and important development of vaccines and medicines – and how the public interest is being protected in such arrangements

There are, of course, many other issues to be addressed in respect of public procurement but addressing these six questions would be a good starting point. The lessons from such a review would hopefully improve the continuing management of the pandemic, planning for any future public health crisis and for wider public service policy development and management.

We hope that COVID-19 is a one-off but nevertheless there will be lessons which are transferable to other aspects of the government and public management and governance.

Failure to learn and respond to the lessons could seriously undermine public confidence at the very time when it is most needed.

The last ten months have been hellish and hectic. Decisions have had to be made quickly. Long drawn-out processes and procedures could not have been allowed to delay action. No one can or should have expected perfection or textbook practice on every occasion, but it is both arrogant and unhelpful to believe that there is no room for improvement or that nothing was done less well than it might have been.

An enquiry should be about learning not blaming, but it must also be about accountability and rebuilding public confidence. It must be about improving outcomes and avoiding repeating mistakes.

 [SA1]Perhaps make this a hyperlink for ‘how public procurement could not escape such an enquiry’

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