Procurement specialists urge public authorities to push forward with innovation

A recently published report explains how the launch of the new Procurement Act can be exploited by public authorities to drive innovation and ignite new thinking.

Council leaders, contractors and consultants were among over 200 guests to gather at the House of Lords in January for the launch of ‘The Art of the Possible in Public Procurement’ from the Innovation Procurement Empowerment Centre at Connected Places Catapult. 

Here, four procurement specialists closely involved in compiling and promoting the report explain why it makes for essential reading. 

Rikesh Shah, Head of the Innovation Procurement Empowerment Centre

“Around £70bn is spent by local authorities each year. The new Procurement Act reinforces the ability for councils to get better value for money with smarter spending. 

Every procurement has the potential to generate ideas and economic activity.

By further empowering authorities to understand procurement more fully, we can support more diverse and localised suppliers.

Local authorities face many pressing challenges: from addressing the climate emergency, to social care, security and health. The new Procurement Act builds public sector confidence and know-how, encouraging entrepreneurial approaches to shape and build markets. 

Procuring innovation can deliver better, cheaper, quicker and greener outcomes and create new innovative businesses to strengthen UK plc. It can also bring diversity of thought and creativity to solve some of our problems. 

Now is an opportunity to build on the progress of recent years and continue to reimagine what public procurement can do to further turn UK to competitive advantage, and be a strategic lever for growth.”

Rebecca Rees, Head of Public Procurement, Trowers & Hamlins and report co-author

“All too often, procurement is seen as a barrier to value, innovation and sometimes common sense. The Art of the Possible sees procurement as a launchpad for innovation, ideas and transformative conversation.

It has been very exciting to help write the report, which focuses on the possibilities that transforming public procurement reforms present to the public sector.  

We understand that clients are busy, cash strapped and often nervous about exploring new frontiers; be they new methods of delivery, technologies or even engaging with new market players. The report emphasis a need for clients to undertake key procurement activities whenever possible, including taking sufficient time to plan and prepare for their procurement; exploiting the benefits accrued through intelligent and focused engagement, and demanding challenging outcomes from bidders. 

The report also recognises the huge contribution and energy in the innovation agenda provided by small and medium-sized enterprises; who are often most at risk of procurement done badly.”

Julian Blake, Public Benefit Lawyer, Stone King and report co-author

Problems with procuring innovation can be characterised very simply: many practices demonstrate ‘process’ over ‘purpose. Focusing too closely on processes can distort the aims and objectives of what an authority is trying to achieve; and the beneficial outcomes of procuring innovation are no longer at the fore. Risk aversion with trying anything new is another issue.

When it comes to procuring innovation, there can be an assumption that the public authority or commissioner knows exactly what they are purchasing. But this is not always the case. The procurement mechanism needs to adapt to inform the public authority what a design might look like and that means engaging with experts.

When you look at the principles of objectivity that procurement is supposed to realise, you need to think about how you can involve innovation experts at the earliest possible stage, and on a continuing basis. There is nothing in the law that stops authorities from doing this.

Malcolm Harbour CBE, Associate Director, Connected Places Catapult and report co-author

“Public procurement is a powerful instrument in driving innovation, and is something that many professionals accept – so why has it not been adopted more fully? 

This report intends to break some of the myths of procurement, and encourage everyone who is investing public money in a contract to really think about what they want from it. Given the challenges local government is dealing with – constrained budgets, problems in meeting public expectations, dealing with zero carbon transitions, making places more resilient and efficient – we cannot continue doing the same things. 

We need to test the market, find people who can solve problems and construct projects in such a way as to bring more innovative businesses on board. This is all about attitude and leadership – and we need political leadership to move forward and deliver this innovation ambition. We cannot allow old perceptions about procurement to continue. Please read the report first before issuing your next tender.”

Read the report here. 

Rikesh Shah will be speaking at the Connected Places Summit on 20 March asking ‘What does the UK’s Procurement Bill mean for local innovation?’