The Independent View: Political Innovation No.2 – the politics of buying things

This is a guest cross-post by Dominic Campbell – originally posted on the Political Innovation site:

Well, you wouldn’t still be reading had I called it the politics of procurement now would you? (no, stop – don’t go!). No-one who engages with government procurement comes away impressed with it. It’s a process that wastes £billions and rewards process over outcomes.

Yet we all know that, deep down, it’s a symptom of a political problem. It is a system set up to manage risk in retrospect and trace blame for failure, rather than create a partnership between supplier and customer that allows us to prototype, innovate, and on occasion, fail (well). Because it’s a top-down process, the top are primarily concerned to shield themselves from criticism rather than to be the parents of success.

The risk of failure is very real, but worth the risk as long as failure happens quickly, cheaply and is learnt from with no same mistake being allowed to happen twice.

Procurement is currently about getting people at the top to define a problem that suppliers can solve. Surely it’s time that this process was turned on its head? Politicians and management alike need to let go, to accept they may not have all the answers but by working with colleagues, suppliers and citizens they may be able to develop and deliver solutions to problems better than ever before.

In many ways the government’s procurement process encapsulates everything that must change in the age of New Politics. Slow, burdensome, anti-innovative and risk averse, it rewards anyone who can parrot the language of the procurer. It rarely takes account of the wider policy objectives that underlie the whole exercise. It scores against lateral thinkers (often smaller, creative suppliers).

It’s no wonder therefore procurement has been singled out on both sides of the Atlantic as a key signifier of change in government culture. Change procurement and you can change much of what is wrong in public service delivery.

In the UK we had the Conservative Party place emphasis on procurement within their Technology Manifesto (it must now extend well beyond this), whereas in the USA the General Services Administration (GSA) are pushing forward on a host of procurement modernisation projects.

While still trialing new ways of working themselves, the GSA (previously seen as the procurement problem not the solution by many) are intent on opening up procurement and bringing in notions of transparency and collaboration. Take the Better Buy Project for instance, where the GSA have developed a space online (a uservoice and a wiki) to co-create the specification for certain goods and services with their suppliers (and presumably their citizens too in the future if not already). Or the new and exciting Challenge.gov, where US government agencies are crowdsourcing solutions to identified problems.

No longer are requirements handed down from on high, but instead developed through an acceptance that ‘many brains are better than one’, they are developing far more honest and achievable set of requirements and saving money with it.

Similarly, FutureGov is developing a social innovation marketplace (Simpl) intended to provide the government with answers from citizens and social innovators to problems it may never knew it had. If it works, procurement will be transformed from the bottom up, with citizens identifying needs and recommending solutions to government rather than merely acting as passive recipients of services.

Clearly while none of this is easy, change is beginning to happen. We can’t hide behind old ideological divides between those who think the state should be doing less or more. Most of us agree that the state has to do something – and all sides of the political spectrum surely want that something to be done well?

This is an idea that needs to be understood and adopted by politicians of all colours. It’s a political innovation rather than a managerial one.

About Political Innovation

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5 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Sep '10 - 12:53pm

    The arguments given here are much the same as those that were given in the past for PFI. I.e. “nasty bad state, can’t get it right, throw it out to the private sector and it’ll all be so much better and more innovative”.

    I’m not saying what’s said here is all wrong, but I am suggesting it should be approached with caution, and with some understanding of why “private sector know-how” fairy dust has not turned out to be the magic ingredient that it has been assumed by those deemed “clever” here since 1979.

    Unfortunately, anything put forward by the Conservative Party on this issue cannot be trusted as they are heavily funded by big private sector companies and so have a vested interest. Obviously, it serves them to promote this interest by making out it’s all small scale citizens’ initiative stuff, much as they and their supporters tend to use “middle class” to mean the wealthiest 5% or sometimes an even smaller proportion of the population.

  • What narrow minded, partizan nonesense Mr Huntbach.

    If the Conservative Party was only interested in 5% of the electorate it would never win an election, would it?

    And does your suggestion that the Conservatives promote the interests of business mean that the decisions of parties that are funded by public sector unions or whose electoral support is drawn disproportionately from among teachers, academics or students who depend for the state on their income are magically value-free? (Leaving aside the underlying implication that Business – and therefore wealth creation – is Bad.)

    It is attitudes like this drove the left into an electoral ghetto.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Sep '10 - 5:20pm


    If the Conservative Party was only interested in 5% of the electorate it would never win an election, would it?

    Of course it could, if it could mislead others into thinking it was interested in them. It might be helped in this if the newspapers and televisions stations and the like were similarly run by people whose only real interest was the welfare of the top 5% of the population. They could make the others think they are interested in them by careful use of language, for example twisting the words “middle” so that sometimes it really meant the word “middle” sometimes it was used to mean the top. Also e.g. by being able to pay for lots of manipulative advertising. Also by using the way certain people in society have a tendency to be little creeps whose limited vision means they suck up to the powerful and repeat their propaganda. The way in which people’s thinking may be manipulated by those at the top by their use of language was explored in a novel called “1984” by George Orwell. Perhaps you have heard of it.

    And does your suggestion that the Conservatives promote the interests of business mean that the decisions of parties that are funded by public sector unions or whose electoral support is drawn disproportionately from among teachers, academics or students who depend for the state on their income are magically value-free?

    No. I see nothing in what I wrote which suggests that. That few people can avoid being biased in favour of their own interests is obvious, and that people who rely on money from others for their existence tend to promote the interests of those others is even more so.That I observe this to be the case in one place does not mean that I disregard it being the case elsewhere.


    (Leaving aside the underlying implication that Business – and therefore wealth creation – is Bad.)

    We are living at a time when we have found out that a lot of what was called “wealth creation” was nothing of the sort, rather it was a pumping up of asset prices by the use of debt mechanisms which involved nothing material being created but some (mainly poorer people) pushed into debt so that others (mainly richer people) gained more control of our lives and were bale to live in huge luxury. As a consequence of this, our government is now having to make huge cutbacks in expenditure, which are hurting many people. I think in the light of this it is worthwhile being a little bit more cautious about the claims of financial business people than we might have been in the past.


    It is attitudes like this drove the left into an electoral ghetto.

    I believe we should be willing to challenge all vested interests and take nothing they say for granted. To me, that is at the heart of liberalism, from the 19th century, when those vested interests tended to be the established Church and the aristocracy, to today, when they are more elsewhere.

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