In the first of our Expertise Spotlight Series, PUBLIC's Head of Communications Natasha Wren sits down with Johnny Hugill, our Deputy Director of Commercial, Spend & Impact at PUBLIC. Johnny and his team have played an important role in helping to shape the UK’s new landmark Procurement Act, as well as some of the systems and processes to support. In this interview, Natasha and Johnny explore his insights into this transformative legislation and the opportunities for driving innovation in public procurement.
It’s been a privilege to be working on public procurement reform in the context of the UK Procurement Act being passed. As an organisation that is trying to drive more modern and innovative public services, including working with our network of amazing tech startups, we know how important procurement is and how much of a barrier it can be. I sincerely believe that getting procurement right is one of the single most important enablers of more modern, effective and sustainable public services.
We have endorsed more innovative and flexible procurement approaches for some time, including in our Buying into the Future report, as well our Innovation Procurement Toolkit that we co-developed with LOTI and London Boroughs.
We’ve also helped to deliver some projects about the digital and data plumbing of the procurement and spend process. This includes our work with the Welsh Government to co-design a user-centred and modern eProcurement and data strategy, as well as our partnership with the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) to facilitate the creation of a Government-wide Procurement Spend Data Service and user-friendly guidance, helping to enhance the experience of public sector buyers. Some of our reflections on the power of better procurement tech are captured in a guide to e-procurement tools for government buyers, which I hope represents a useful asset for buyers and tech vendors in the sector.
Personally, I have been delighted to be involved in some of the groups providing insights to the brilliant Cabinet Office and Government Commercial Function teams shaping this policy. This includes through the Procurement Transformation Advisory Panel, and the Open Contracting Steering Group, where I have tried to fly the flag for digital and innovation.
I think the whole sector should be proud of the collective and constructive achievement of the Procurement Act, where there is strong consensus that there is a significant step forward, and I’m truly excited about the positive impact it will have.
This is one of the parts of the Act that I am most excited about, and I think can have a huge impact for anyone interested in making procurement more flexible and streamlined. At its heart, it replaces a few existing commercial procedures defined within PCR 2015 (the old regulations), and gives contracting authorities significantly more freedom to shape their procurements in a more proportionate and commercially sensible way. The potential for modern technology purchases is a core outcome that I consider a hugely positive signal.
One of the things we hear all the time from the tech sector is that the ways of running competitions or tenders are not well-suited to modern technologies, or ways of working (‘an analog process for buying digital products’, as it is sometimes put). If used right, this new flexible procedure can give us all some more commercial freedom to buy specialist things like technology in more specialist - and proportionate ways. It could be a significantly neater tool for testing and scaling innovative tech in challenge programme formats (done using the ‘Design Contest’ in some EU countries). It might also be the mechanism that allows us to explore innovative approaches like hackathons, reverse pitches, demos, and synthetic data, which so many in the tech sector have been calling for. These points still need to be defined in secondary legislation - or maybe in guidance for buyers - but I am extremely hopeful that we’ll see a new wave of modern and agile procurement methods underpinned by this new commercial procedure.
First, a piece of terminology or jargon change. The old Dynamic Purchasing System - widely used by CCS in recent years - is now the ‘Dynamic Market’. Other than this name change, the stronger provision for Dynamic Markets to be used in a wider range of contexts and sectors is really promising.
The increased use of Dynamic Markets in my view is sensible. Markets are dynamic: and in most areas, it makes sense to have the ability for new suppliers to emerge and join the marketplace, and not shut ourselves out from new innovations.
I’m also pleased to see the adoption of more open framework processes, taking the spirit of successful, regularly opening frameworks like G-Cloud and DOS. That means that - in areas where a fixed framework might be better than a Dynamic Marketplace (for example, for reasons of supply security), suppliers will still get a chance to join at least before three years have elapsed.
Both of these moves will be good for suppliers - to be able to access public procurement opportunities and markets in a fairer way, and good for buyers - to ensure that they can benefit from cutting-edge technologies, vendors and opportunities.
The shift from ‘MEAT’ to ‘MAT’ in award terminology might seem like a minor technical change, but could also be a significant enabler for using procurement as a more strategic tool.
The spirit of this shift is to recognise that procurement is ultimately a strategic financial lever for public authorities, with costs and benefits going beyond simple financial and technical considerations.
I’m particularly thrilled about how this can provide the underpinning enabling framework for buyers to consider sustainability as a key factor in procurement decisions. Again, this needs to be fleshed out separately from the Act in later guidance, but it’s reaffirming to see authorities more boldly establishing the environmental and social value factors that they can use as part of their supplier evaluation.
I would note that the Act is clear that these wider factors still need to be directly tied to the contract subject matter area, so I think we’ll see authorities developing a more mature evaluation framework for considering specific social value and sustainability factors for specific product and service areas in question.
This is honestly a massive commitment, and an equally significant undertaking. The creation of a central digital platform is arguably one of the most significant steps forward for the procurement sector. The UK - with a fragmented set of buying authorities, and a fragmented set of e-procurement tools - has always had a problem with centralising procurement data. Add to that, many authorities separately capture their spend data (from financial systems) from their procurement data (from e-procurement systems). This means, for anyone interested in gaining a clear picture of procurement and spend data across the UK has had their work cut out.
The benefits of better data quality are well-known and well-discussed. It’s important for transparency and openness, building trust in public services; it’s important for helping authorities to benchmark and compare their spend, getting better value for money; and it’s important for enabling better resource and demand planning across the UK public sector.
The vision of the central digital platform is that it will provide a single view of all contract and spend data across the UK government. And even better, is the prospect of the UK adopting the Open Contracting Data Standard (which both defines the structure and amount of data that needs to be published by authorities). This will represent a huge step for the UK, and position them as a global leader in procurement data transparency if done correctly, alongside renowned champions like Ukraine and Mexico.
The National Procurement Policy Statement will give a more robust and direct instrument to enforce authorities to follow strategic and policy priorities, to go alongside existing instruments like PPNs and practical guidance (Sourcing Playbook, etc.). There are obviously many ways procurement might be used to drive policy, but I’ll focus particularly on sustainability, which I’m most interested in.
Globally, public procurement represents a staggering $13 trillion of global public spend and contributes to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is similar in the UK. This makes it one of the most significant levers the UK Government has at its disposal to drive more sustainable outcomes.
I think that - despite the widespread policy interest in sustainable procurement - commercial teams need more clarity and practical tools and guidance. Partly to address this (at a global level), we partnered with the Open Contracting Partnership and the German Development Bank (GIZ) to create a simple digital toolkit aimed at helping procurement teams implement sustainability policies. Since its launch in 2022, the toolkit has gained widespread adoption among global government buyers. With thousands of procurement and commercial practitioners worldwide using the guidance since, further appetite to align procurement and sustainability has since gained traction at pace. Since then, we have also started working with the Open Contracting Partnership and CCS to co-develop green procurement criteria in key categories, in a way that is more inclusive and SME-friendly.
I hope the National Procurement Policy Statement can become a critical instrument for defining sustainability as a key strategic priority - with clear, practical tools for authorities to put this into practice.
The passing of the Act marks a celebration for the procurement sector, and by extension, for the entire public sector. Whether it’s the pathway for ambitious digitalisation and procurement data programmes or adoption of better procurement and data standards, and ambitions for awarding more to SMEs, provisions to make procurement more streamlined and sustainable, along with much more, this is a momentous occasion.
If you’re interested in exploring how PUBLIC can support your organisation in navigating these exciting changes and achieving your procurement goals, feel free to contact me directly for a deeper conversation on how we can support you. Learn more about our services, the outcomes you stand to gain, and the impact we create by visiting our Commercial, Spend & Impact Expertise Page. We’re on hand to help you drive innovation through procurement, so get in touch.
PUBLIC has partnered with Ignite Procurement to help public authorities to deliver more intelligent and sustainable procurement.
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