I know what you’re thinking. Where to start, right? The sector is full of glamour. There’s the high-flying chief executive, at the pinnacle of a local government career – a figurehead of the staff, working closely with politicians, negotiating hard with civil servants – that’s all pretty cool stuff. Or there are the whizzy strategists, buzzing with ideas to reach new frontiers of transformation, full of systems thinking and change narratives – they’re often more agile than a ballerina.
But I have another answer, which may surprise you: the sexiest job in local government right now is in procurement. Bear with me.
Years of austerity pressures and budget cuts are shifting how councils are able to respond to their residents’ needs. It is no longer the case that a social or economic problem can be tackled simply by administering a bespoke grant or a ringfenced funding stream parcelled down from Whitehall. By 2020, many councils will have seen their spending slashed by half of what it was at the start of the decade.
But despite the cuts, local government does still have significant spending power – the most recent figures put this at about £50 billion in total (excluding education and police spend). On a local authority level, it is estimated that about half of all spend is on goods and services from the private, community and voluntary sector. In an era of less resource, how you use what resource you do still have becomes even more important. And the procurement team is in charge of it.
Council spend is a key lever for influence and outcomes in the community. Getting as much value out of that spend as possible is the surest route to social, environmental and wider local economic impact that a council has, outside its direct statutory responsibilities. The purchasing power of procurement can drive real value locally: fostering strong local supply chains with opportunities for small businesses and the local VCS; driving social mobility by building employment opportunities for local people into contracts; and shaping the market for new and innovative forms of delivery. The Preston model of community wealth building demonstrates some of this in practice. As the future of local government finance becomes ever closer linked to business rates income from a healthy local economy, the role of procurement in a virtuous cycle of inclusive growth and investment is going to be essential.
The trouble is, procurement teams often don’t recognise just how sexy all that is. It is a frequent lament of people I speak to about these things that procurement simply does not push the boundaries of the possible. The latest report in our Changemaking series, Culture Shock, sets out a framework for understanding culture within councils, and argues that the hierarchy culture, which prizes control, too often wins out over ‘adhocracy’ or ‘clan’ cultures, which prize creativity and collaboration respectively.
Currently procurement is a classic example of a hierarchy culture in practice. It is bureaucratic and process-driven, focussed on consistency and rule-adherance. Procurement teams set themselves a narrow remit, mostly concerned with price and the avoidance of risk or challenge. This might seem logical at first glance in an era of finite resource, but a rigid fixation on cost in the short term can occur at the expense of value over the longer term.
For procurement to realise the true potential (and sexiness) the function has, it would need to shift its culture and practice concertedly towards the cultures that enable creativity and collaboration. This would reframe the function of procurement from bean-counter within the council towards one of social-impact driver across the community at large.
A more creative approach to procurement would involve understanding its potential much more explicitly as a catalyst of innovation. This would mean a more open approach which starts with unanswered questions for providers to come forward with creative answers to, rather than prescribing solutions at the outset. That might involve actively encouraging diverse and innovative suppliers rather than sticking rigidly to traditional methods, and not being afraid of inviting external challenge to existing presumptions.
A more collaborative approach to procurement would certainly involve entering into the more open dialogue with a range of providers that could generate new ideas. There is also potential for council procurement teams to collaborate across borough boundaries much more. At the moment, there are lots of good examples of shared services, mostly between district councils and mostly geared towards driving efficiencies (with some notable exceptions such as the West London Alliance). But there is huge untapped potential for wider and deeper collaboration, across authorities already within a combined authority, for example, to market make on a wider scale. By coming together to maximise their buying power, there is a real opportunity to shape the provider market towards social and economic wellbeing outcomes.
Too often in councils, the “vision thing” is seen as the preserve of senior leadership, and no matter how visionary that leadership is, there can be an internal disconnect within the council to that vision being realised in practice through delivery. Procurement is a key part of this – and as local government adapts to a world of reduced resource but unrelenting demand pressures, procurement has to recognise its role as a key driver of big change and real social impact in the future. That’s pretty damned sexy if you ask me.