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Dominic Cummings and the messy reality of UK public procurement

For many Australian procurement professionals, the UK public sector is generally seen as a beacon of good procurement practice. But senior British political strategist and Chief Special Adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, has engaged in searing and ongoing criticism of UK public procurement that is shedding light on a profession that is “squandering billions of pounds” and has kicked off a national conversation about the messy reality of public procurement.

Targeting military spending 

Cummings is currently seeking to launch a review of Ministry of Defence spending, claiming the department has been wasting billions on misjudged procurement. The claim is that the current state of Britain’s armed forces does not reflect the £39 billion a year that is spent on them. The £6.2 billion purchase of two aircraft carriers which are unlikely to be put to much use has been singled out as an example of poor purchasing and wasteful spending.

Cummings intends to rein in Defence spending through better management techniques and the restriction of purchasing abilities, the reduction of overspends and delays on equipment. Cummings has also flagged a shift in focus from traditional Defence hardware (ships, tanks, planes) to AI and drone technology.

Writing for The Conversation, University of Portsmouth’s Matthew Powell predicts that Cummings will ultimately fail in his “radical” attempt to overhaul Defence spending.

Brexit offers a chance to reform

Cummings has also flagged the opportunity offered by Brexit to reform public procurement once it is free from the bureaucratic requirements of the EU. Lem Bingley suggests that Cummings’ thinking on this topic may reflect that of the right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange, which wrote that “Public procurement and outsourcing have become a byword for high-profile government failures … From the bankruptcy of Carillion … to the ongoing problems with the escalating cost of High Speed 2, it is clear that there is something very wrong with the way that the machinery of government interacts with private commercial organisations.” The think tank recommends that in post-Brexit public procurement:

  • tendering should focus firmly on outcomes rather than processes
  • the grounds for legally challenging contract awards should be curtailed
  • tender evaluation processes should include the impact on British jobs.

According to Peter Smith in Spend Matters, the problem with UK public procurement lies in a lack of tangible measures of success, and a lack of detail and transparency around what the UK taxpayer is getting for public procurement spend. The call for greater transparency is echoed by law and policy expert David Allen Green.

In a recent blog post, Cummings focused on the new skills needed in Downing Street, calling for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts, and assorted weirdos”. Interestingly, this somewhat rambling blog entry was posted under the “Procurement” category.

With headlines on his blog like “Government Procurement – the horror, the horror”, it’s clear that Cummings has a dim view of the current state of public procurement in the UK. Watch this space.

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