Procurement in the UK is about to go through the biggest reform in a generation, but is the public sector ready for it?


By Sarah Shreeves, Head of Training Services

The government has just released its green paper Transforming Public Procurement, which includes proposals to shape the future of the discipline for many years to come. The government's main aim is to speed up and simplify the process, by placing value for money at the centre of procurement work, while unleashing opportunities for innovation in public service delivery.

This reform comes at a very challenging time for procurement professionals. While the world is still struggling with the fallout from COVID-19, we are now seeing global supply chains creaking under the pressure that the pandemic continues to cause. Brexit has also caused delays and turbulence with the flow of goods due to a shortage of foreign labour.

As global economies have opened up and factories have restarted their production lines, the competition for goods will inevitably mean increased costs for the consumer.

Currently the UK public sector spends around £290bn a year on procurement, of which every penny needs to be justified in the interests of the taxpayer. In this new green paper, the government makes the case that this huge sum of money needs to be leveraged to help the UK recover from the pandemic, but also to meet the target of achieving net-zero by 2050. Now that we have left the EU, we will be able to determine our own procurement laws rather than following those of our continental partners, it adds.

However, to take advantage of these new opportunities and achieve the new aims, we need professionals who are not bogged down in the traditional ways of procurement. We need to encourage reasonable risk-taking, experimentation and learn to embrace failure as a form of learning if we are to benefit from the opportunities that the green paper promises.

The fierce competition for goods in a post-pandemic world, coupled with strained global supply chains and a shortage of labour means that today’s procurement professionals need to have an enhanced skillset. The traditional skillset of cost control, value creation, spreadsheets and budget management needs a fundamental re-think.

Now, the role of a procurement officer is more important than ever in helping the organisation achieve its goals – from reaching net zero to ensuring goods are sustainable and ethically sourced. We need new ways of doing things, creative problem solvers and procurement officers who understand the needs of individual departments in their organisation. I’d argue a one size fits all model is no longer fit for purpose.

We need procurement, and indeed the organisations themselves, to be willing to embrace new technology, to be able to adapt quickly to global events and who are natural relationship builders. The age of traditional procurement is ending, and the public sector and those of us who work alongside it need to be ready to embrace what comes next.

There seems to be a lack of willingness to invest in the softer, but nevertheless essential, skills that are vital to a successful career in public procurement. Communication and people skills, listening, empathy, agility, adaptability, creative problem solving, ability to use logical reasoning, time management, stakeholder engagement and the all-important negotiation skills are just a few essential characteristics which are needed for a productive life in procurement.

Organisations have a responsibility to offer their employees access to continuing professional development courses (CPD), but all too often in the public sector these get overlooked – largely due to cost and time pressures, or perhaps because they are not seen as bona-fide courses and qualifications. It is exactly in these kinds of CPD courses where vital softer skills, attributes and behaviours can be built on and developed, which will feed into all aspects of an individual’s work life.

CIPFA recognises the challenges faced by the procurement industry, and how it finds itself trapped in a perfect storm of factors, which have all converged to create an extremely demanding work environment. We understand the importance of lifelong learning and how upskilling a workforce can bring huge benefits not only to that employer, but to the sector as a whole. This is why we run regular events and training sessions for those in the public sector aimed at improving and developing their skills.

As the government pushes ahead with its radical reform of our procurement laws, the public sector needs to be ready to take full advantage of the opportunities this will create, and invest in its people and infrastructure. Learning from the past and becoming a more emotionally articulate workforce will be key to future organisational success.

Surely it is an organisation’s responsibility to lead on the upskilling and training of the next generation of procurement professionals and embrace the need for change. To be ready, the public sector needs talented, skilled, diverse and passionate people who are willing to look at the bigger picture, and not just a few lines of a spreadsheet.

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