On 10th and 11th June 2013, I chaired a two day tour for a delegation of politicians' and officials from the Czech Republic, who were visiting London to learn about how UK public bodies are implementing responsible procurement practices.
Since joining the European Union in 2004, the Czech Republic's priorities for public procurement have been focused on cleaning-up the awarding of contracts. Last year, the government introduced a major amendment to the country's public procurement act, bringing in sweeping reforms moving them closer towards transparency and accountability. Their spotlight has now shifted on to responsible procurement, and how smarter public spending can help tackle some of the country social and economic problems.
Internationally, the UK is regarded as a leader in responsible procurement or sustainable procurement – the concept is known by many different names. Our public sector spends £238 billion on goods and services a year in the UK. Understandably, the Cabinet Office is keen that this public money is used better to deliver more for less, especially in austere times. So in 2012, this government enacted the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, under this new law, contracting authorities will have to consider social, economic and environmental requirements when a contract for services is commissioned. The purpose of the tour was to show the Czech delegates, how we got to this position.
The Czech delegation wanted to see first-hand how the UK was overcoming the barriers of bureaucracy and red tape, the usual snipping around value for money arguments, and confusion over what is permissible by EU procurement law. These issues have dogged responsible procurement principles from being more widely adopted by public bodies across Europe.
The tour featured presentations from some heavyweights including Greater London Authority, London Fire Brigade, Crossrail, Transport for London, Camden Council, and Croydon Council – all with serious purchasing clout. It was genuinely inspiring to see how they are joining up their policy aims with their procurement power. Their suppliers, contractors and providers are helping to create new jobs, apprenticeships, opportunities for micro businesses – benefiting the pan London economy.
The presenting organisations all shared a common understanding– that procurement is core, and not periphery, to achieving local social and economic development. Yet they weren't complacent, yes a lot had been done over the last decade, but its constant battle in the midst of cuts and constrained budgets, and there was still a lot to do.
The Czech participants will be working closely with Nova Ekonomika, a Czech not for profit organisation, to take forward some of the UK learning in their own towns and municipalities. The tour was part of an 18 month project funded by the European Social Fund, and will culminate in a national conference to be held early 2014.