How Responses to Covid-19 can Energise Innovative Procurement

Emergency initiatives to address the COVID 19 crisis are dramatically demonstrating the value of public procurement in accelerating and deploying innovation. Legislation is often cited as a barrier to innovation. However, legal constraints do not appear to have inhibited COVID 19 responses. Indeed, rule makers in the UK and the EU have explicitly encouraged the use of existing legal tools and broadcast their flexibility.

Energising the potential of innovation procurement will be essential to address the many challenging goals that public authorities will face as the global economy recovers. Innovative solutions must be developed and deployed more quickly. More innovative suppliers should be encouraged, with new partnerships developed between companies, universities and research institutes. Examples of COVID 19 responses will provide catalysts for change across all organisations delivering public services.

The barriers to innovative procurement are primarily behavioural and organisational. Innovation requires strong leadership to overcome the fear of change and to openly recognise the deficiencies of current systems. Innovative organisations develop thoroughly analysed, outcomes-based requirements embracing social, environmental and economic criteria. Common factors are evident from countries, regions and cities embracing innovative procurement — high level political advocacy; deployment of a wide range of policy tools; integration of procurement into overall innovation policy; consistent public funding.

Innovative procurement also raises innovative capabilities around the customers’ community and across national economies. Innovative public sector customers expand their role to become market makers. They set technology challenges, broker partnerships, fund demonstrator projects and mentor innovative enterprises to scale up their delivery of products and services. Procurement contests are natural “co-creation projects”, and citizens can be invited to submit ideas for unmet needs. Commissioners collaborate — locally, nationally and internationally — to resolve shared problems.

The UK has a good basis for leadership. It has built a world leading organisation to deploy Government Digital Services (GDS), whose capabilities are evident in the speedy deployment of responsive on-line systems delivering COVID information and support to workers and businesses alike. Through Innovate UK and the Small Business Innovation and Research (SBRI) programme, the UK is ranked as a leading proponent of innovation procurement among large economies. Small innovative companies now have a much enhanced role as suppliers to the UK public sector.

The UK’s devolved and city regions are strongly engaged with innovation procurement. The Mayor of London promotes a wide range of innovation challenges. Wales and Northern Ireland have deployed innovative solutions through procurement programmes. The Scottish Government encourages innovation through specific clauses in its devolved procurement rules. Their CivTech challenge integrates idea generation, solutions development, business mentoring and skills development.

Innovative procurement must be expanded to accelerate the post COVID economy. It must enhance the UK’s competitiveness and encourage more leading innovators to become public sector partners. The Challenging Procurement initiative established last summer by Connected Places Catapult can bring leaders together to make this happen.