Procurement, on the surface at least, is not one of the local government issues that gets a national newspaper editor hot under the collar.
It lacks the emotive punch of a children’s services story or the ability to incur wrath in the way a council tax hike piece can. But break it down into cold numbers and procurement becomes very interesting indeed.
The public sector spent £175bn on external goods and services in 2007-08 and, according to last May’s Operational Efficiency Programme report, a more collaborative approach to purchasing could deliver annual savings of £7.7bn, or 4.4% of expenditure, by 2013-14.
That’s a lot of cash to spend on hospitals, care homes and or other such worthy causes.
The Improvement & Development Agency estimates councils spend £50bn on procurement. So, on the proviso that councils achieve savings of a similar proportion to the public sector as a whole, around 4.4% - £2.2bn - could be shaved off the bill.
But this week, one year on from the publication of his report on local government procurement, Bill Roots tells LGC that councils are not doing enough to improve their procurement practices.
Having laid out a raft of proposals in The Roots Review: Review of arrangements for efficiencies from smarter procurement in local government, the former Westminster City Council chief executive remains sceptical.
“There has been quite a lot of action,” says Mr Roots, whose report was commissioned by the Department for Communities & Local Government. “But not enough. Not a lot has happened at a national level. I am aware of individual Regional Improvement & Efficiency Partnerships doing more and individual authorities doing more but I was worried about the risk of fragmentation and that still seems to be the case now.”
Mr Roots also admits to being “disappointed” that the Local Government Association ignored his call for a “procurement champion” to co-ordinate action at a national level. As well as being a key plank of his review, the move was backed by the Treaury’s OEP report.
But the LGA says: “The role proposed for the procurement champion is a significant one and we have concerns about the scope of the role and a champion’s ability to deliver change across a wide-ranging agenda.”
Mr Roots also voices concerns that councils could be focusing too much on protecting their local economies.
“Maybe the view is strong from members that their local economies are more important than getting value for money from procurement. I understand it as a short-term measure because of the damage done by the recession, but is it the best long-term solution?” he asks.
But the LGA is adamant Mr Roots’ recommendations have been taken on board, citing the creation of regional data bases of contracts as an example.
The RIEPs programme has also underlined its ambitions to co-ordinate more at a national level with the appointment of David Gigg.
RIEPs programme manager Keith Beaumont is bullish about addressing the fragmented local government procurement landscape through RIEPs.
“Procurement is the most productive area of RIEP work in terms of delivering cashable savings for authorities and it is likely to stay that way,” he says.
“Many of [Mr Roots’] recommendations have been taken up by RIEPs working with procurement experts in the Office of Government Commerce and the professional buying organisations.
“The report raised the profile of procurement and kept it at the top of the agenda.”