And another thing…

By Iona Joy 21 December 2012

I’ve finally twigged the implications of all this competitive procurement malarkey.

The UK is being forced to bet the public service delivery house on the premise that competition results in best value/delivery for public services. The UK is a part of Europe and we have to comply with European competition law. In essence, if public services above a particular value are contracted out, they have to be competitively tendered.

But I don’t believe the case for an increase in value as a result of competition in the public services market has yet been proven. I’ve read literature on competition in health services that says it may force down prices to the lowest common denominator on quality—costing more in the long run when low quality results in failure. We’re already seeing this in the social care market, with contracts being bid at a price that means providers are either paying carers below the minimum wage or not actually delivering the services they claim they are.

So I’d like to see some independent research into whether this type of procurement really is good for those whom public services are intended to help (eg, the vulnerable, the frightened, the hard to reach). These people need ‘soft’, hard-to-measure services, not hard, price-driven products.  If the case is not demonstrated, I’d advocate a long hard think by policymakers. I’ve heard about procurement decisions that defy logic. Like the older people’s services in a county I shan’t name, where the existing provider has a long and successful track record of helping older people, but was supplanted by a young people’s organisation because their bid was better at ‘gaming’ the tender response. So bid writing skills won over service skills.  In another case, the far better qualified candidate lost because they were 4p per hour costlier than a worse qualified candidate.

Of course, a really well-run procurement process should be able to pick providers with the best track record and qualifications, but it still relies on the bidders being able to write really good bids. I’d like to see tenders written in a way that helps to elicit the best bids, and value them according to genuine quality, not just bid-writing skills. As part of the process, commissioners and procurement officers should perhaps interview shortlisted providers, or even—and here’s a thought—visit existing services. It might save everyone a packet in the long run.

In the meantime I’m delighted that the Cabinet Office is proposing to run some bid writing master classes for charities.  I’m predicting a sell out!

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