Tackling Poverty Through Public Procurement – details for practitioners

My previous post commented on the launch by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) of their report on Tackling Poverty Through Public Procurement. That post looked at the policy implications of the report, and this post follows on with a discussion about the practicalities. The audience here is assumed to know the usual workings of public procurement in the UK. For those who don’t and are interested to know more, a useful free starting point is https://www.gov.uk/tendering-for-public-sector-contracts/the-procurement-process .

The key lesson from this JRF report is that it is possible to operate a public procurement call for bids where the successful contractor will have to work with a named list of local agencies in order to provide additional local impacts, including employment and training for people in the most disadvantaged areas and groups. To be lawful, this requirement must be advertised right at the start, such as in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). This must be quantified, for example following the JRF target of 52 person-weeks of employment for the most disadvantaged residents for each £1 million of contract value.

This approach is compliant with the MEAT (most economically advantageous tender) criteria for scoring bids which by law can include environmental and social criteria as well as economic ones. All criteria used must be relevant to the nature of the contract and to the wider work of the purchasing client. One of the most powerful reasons for local employment and training is that any improvements in disadvantaged areas and groups will improve the value for money obtained by the wider public sector in lower costs to a range of departments and services, for example in lower requirements for out-of-work benefits.

It was noted at the launch event that these additional criteria are actually most frequently applied in the procurement of major construction projects, which is all well and good, but they now need to be taken further into contracts for services and supplies. These non-construction procurements actually are a much bigger slice of the cake.

Some of the typical concerns raised by some procurement practitioners are as follows:

1. Will it cost more?
No, the firms which are good at recruiting disadvantaged people are also good at their work generally, including cost control. The local benefit criteria is typically around 5% of the total score, so winning companies will also be very good at the other 95%.

2. Will it be a make-work scheme?
No, because successful firms want all of their staff to be as productive as possible so they will develop any previously-disadvantaged staff along with the rest of the workforce.

3. Will EU rules allow it?
Yes, and the details are in the JRF report. This applies both to the law about free mobility of labour and the law about firms in all EU countries being able to bid equally. It is equal because the local agencies will work with whoever wins the bid, wherever their head office is. And the local agencies will not discriminate against disadvantaged residents based on their nationality, directly or indirectly.

An interesting example of this work in practice was described at the launch event. Birmingham City Council has co-located a local employment officer within Network Rail in connection with the redevelopment of New Street rail station. As one result, 10 unemployed apprentices were recruited by a local demolition sub-contractor.

The presentation by Birmingham City Council outlined the following factors to ensure success:

– Make it policy.
– Get buy-in from partners, including the private sector.
– Embed the details within contracts
– Support businesses and train public sector procurement staff
– Agree the key performance indicators, otherwise it will drift into easy-to-do areas and groups
– Monitor the data, and use RAG ratings (red, amber, green) to trigger payments
– Celebrate successes
– Make it business as usual.

As one speaker said, you have to “bake in” the targets into the contracts, but don’t jump all over contractors or sub-contractors if they get a red RAG rating, but instead support them to find solutions. And, they added, it is better to give the opportunity to 10 people to change their lives than to list 100 people moving from one work programme to another.

A phrase that was used repeatedly at the launch event was that public procurement staff needed to know that they had permission to impact in the most disadvantaged areas and groups. Finally, within the presentations it was noted that in Birmingham the director of public health is now looking to copy the council’s approach into their own contracts, such as mental health support services.

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