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David Willett, corporate director of The Open University, looks at streamlining the lengthy, daunting public sector procurement process
In a rapidly evolving public sector, procurement is not a topic renowned for inspiring passionate debate. Outside the finance office, most of us have little idea how our organisation goes about buying essential goods and services. And when it comes to purchases where wider involvement is necessary, the process can be complicated, inefficient and time-consuming to say the least.
The UK public sector is in control of immense purchasing power annually, and with significant means comes a pressing need for procurement to be prioritised, streamlined and rigorous, particularly in the public sector where spending decisions are scrutinised and processes can be daunting and lengthy. Some feel that the acquisition of equipment and services could be made easier, and while single departments or organisations can shake things up significantly at grass roots, a framework approach is paying dividends more widely.
A framework approach
National and regional procurement frameworks promise to accelerate the provision of goods and services for the public sector. They allow institutions to select services, which have been rigorously tested and evaluated - without a cumbersome formal procurement process.
At The Open University, we recently announced our own successful bid to become one of the chosen suppliers of the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship, Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship and Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship for public sector organisations across England.
The decision by the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) means that public sector organisations looking to develop management and digital skills through degree apprenticeships can save crucial time and resource by fast-tracking the procurement process, while ensuring good governance, through partnering with the OU. The government’s target is to create three million apprenticeships by 2020. Public sector bodies with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million per year are now tasked with investing 0.5 per cent of their total staffing cost into apprenticeship opportunities. With 2.3 per cent of the public sector workforce to be made up of apprentices by 2020, most public bodies are already required to have some kind of apprenticeship programme in place.
The CCS framework was set up in September 2017 to help develop the next generation of civil servants by helping organisations set up their own apprenticeship programmes without having to do multiple, lengthy procurement exercises to access ESFA-registered training providers.
So, while frameworks like the CCS example offer peace of mind that services and providers have been scrutinised, it should be noted that, while offering guidance, they don’t remove choice. Within the frameworks, there is plenty of room to choose the solution that best fits an organisation’s needs. We’d urge organisations beyond the headlines, and take a considered approach to choosing suppliers and solutions. Work out which apprenticeship solution will affect significant organisational change, instead of simply looking to the cheapest option.
Finally, procurement doesn’t stop at the point of purchase. For us, ongoing training, measurement and evaluation is just as important as the selection process. A commitment to managing services reinforces their importance. And this, too, can be enhanced by using a framework to continually evaluate and benchmark providers and solutions.
So, while status quo tells us that selecting goods and services is at best ‘someone else's’ job and at worst an incredibly daunting exercise, it’s time that the industry changed its view. Our experiences have helped us to re-evaluate the procurement process, and to understand that we all have a role to play in making it easier for organisations.
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