PUBLIC PROCUREMENT AS A LEVER OF GOVERNMENT REFORM: INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH EVIDENCE
Christine Harland, Guy Callendar, Louise Knight, Jan Telgen, Khi Thai, Helen Walker
Public procurement internationally is moving, in many countries, towards a policy role, and focusing less on transactional procurement. This is enabling an alignment of procurement policy with government policy, effectively engaging procurement as a lever of economic, technological or social reform. This move appears to be driven most rapidly in cases of aspirational policy change, such as the removal of apartheid in South Africa. However, some rule based states where public procurement tends to be legalistic find it difficult to make this shift towards strategy and policy. This paper reports some of the findings of an international research study on public procurement involving senior government practitioners and leading management academics meeting to examine and analyse case studies on reform of procurement from their countries. The main findings of the study were some marked differences in the degree of alignment of public procurement strategy and government strategy, with some territories exhibiting close alignment and others not, resulting in a categorisation of public procurement strategies as deliverers of broader government objectives, supporters of broader government objectives, providers of cost efficiency and rule compliance.
There is evidence of increasing interest in improving public procurement, which accounts for significant proportions of countries’ total spend. To date, however, there is little understanding of the nature of public procurement and how, and why, it differs across countries and across different parts of public sector. From limited initial research, the authors had observed some fundamental differences between countries in their public services; these differences impact on procurement undertaken to support these services. For example, it was noted that there is a substantial impact on public procurement arising from factors such as different organizational structures for public sector services, different regulatory, legislative and funding arrangements, and different cultures.
Some researchers have attempted to visit various countries to understand and compare local public procurement systems; this is a costly and time consuming exercise which, potentially, each nation might replicate. There are also research proposals being made to the EU by various international consortia to investigate particular aspects of public procurement, for example comparing the take-up of e-government procurement. It seems, however, that these proposals do not include examination of the fundamental differences and similarities in the natures of the public procurement systems being studied.
To address this gap, a collaborative research study was organised. This document reports the findings of the International Research Study of Public Procurement. This was centred on two 2 ½ day events involving internationally leading academics and senior public sector practitioners to explore public procurement in the context of major government reform. This paper focuses on the findings within the study relating to the aspirations to use public procurement as a lever of government reform, and evidence of achievement of these aspirations.
Aspirations to use public procurement as a lever of government reform
It has been recognised in UK government practice that procurement should be more strategic within government (HM Treasury/ Cabinet Office, 1998). In a recent speech by Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was demonstrated that public procurement is now high on the agenda of senior ministers.
“I think most of you would agree that 50, 20 or even 10 years ago the idea that the Treasury would be interested in issues like public space, the design quality of public procurement, environmental standards, devolution, regionalism and social exclusion would be almost unthinkable. But we know that not only are these questions vital to successful, economically vibrant communities but they are at the heart of the agenda for social and economic progress.” (Brown, 2005)
In “Ethnic Minorities and the Labour Market, Final Report” (2003), the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit aspired to use public procurement to “promote workplace diversity” using “public procurement as a lever to effect change in employment practices”. In a letter to the Chancellor, Lord Leitch of Oakley, as Chair of the National Employment Panel, states:
“we believe that public procurement is a critical lever to effect change in the private sector and to opening sustainable jobs to ethnic minorities and faith groups.” (National Employment Panel, 2005)
The UK Office of Government Commerce (2005), when emphasising the increasing importance of sustainable development, highlighted:
“the role of public sector procurement as a possible lever for delivering wider policy objectives, for example, in areas such as:
-innovation and the harnessing of new ideas in the public sector
-the promotion and maintenance of competitive and contestable markets
-opportunities for diverse organisations such as SMEs, VCOs, BMEs, women-owned businesses and social enterprises, which includes the use of technology
-achieving community benefits in local government through, for example, community benefit clauses
-race and gender equality
-promotion of skills and training
…The areas highlighted above represent wider policy considerations from which contracting authorities can achieve both the benefit of increased value for money and efficiency and also, in the case of sustainable development, the benefits associated with delivering wider objectives through procurement”.
In “Towards Sustainability – Facing the Future 2004/2005”, the UK NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency describes how it is working with other government agencies to support delivery of the Department of Health public health policy as proposed in the White Paper “Choosing Health – Making Healthy Choices Easier” (2004).
“The Agency is working with DEFRA (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) on the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative to increase the sustainability of food supplied to the NHS - looking at regional food supply, enabling food growers to access the NHS supply chain, working with the Food Standards Agency and industry on a Salt Reduction Action Plan, purchasing the fruit and vegetables for the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, working directly with trusts to look at the supply of organic foods, and supporting the DH's work on 5-A-Day equivalents for composite foods.”
In the UK MoD, there are attempts to ensure that defence spending supports strategic defence objectives. “Defence Intelligence carries out regional assessments to ensure that UK procurement resources are targeted against the threat most likely to be faced by UK Armed Forces and not just the best military equipment” (Defence Intelligence website, 2005).
These aspirations to use public procurement to contribute to broader government policies are not unique to UK government. The Ministry of Finance of Trinidad and Tobago (2005) aspires for public sector procurement to “operate as a lever for public policy implementation.” In South Africa the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (2000) and the broader based Black Economic Empowerment Bill (BEE) embody the “primary objectives that need to inform procurement policy” which include:
“ - employment creation
-economic empowerment of previously disadvantaged persons of categories of persons
-the quality and cost efficiency of goods procured
-the promotion of domestic (as opposed to foreign) manufacturers/ service providers and
-the promotion of best practice labour standards and worker rights” (Cosatu Parliamentary Office, 2003)
However, most government spending is performed in a devolved, fragmented way through local procurement arrangements subjected to efficiency savings targets (Gershon, 2004), public procurement regulations, local budget constraints and, sometimes conflicting, local stakeholder objectives. To date there has not been research to investigate if those responsible for procurement across government bodies aspire to use public procurement as a lever for public policy implementation, and to compare these aspirations with other nations.
Evidence of the use of public procurement as a lever of government reform
Public authorities throughout the EU have, on occasions, used public procurement as an instrument of industrial or social policy, awarding contracts for goods or services to advance regional development objectives, social objectives such as providing jobs for the long-term unemployed, or to sustain and nurture new industries or technical skills as a means of promoting national industrial competitiveness (Arrowsmith, 1995). This finding is supported by Maloney et al (2000) who emphasise the significant role that public sector organisations play in adopting capacity building programmes.
The UK National Employment Panel (2005) found:
“pockets of good practice to promote race equality exist across the public sector, but this is not widespread and it should be. Failure to use the public procurement lever more systematically across the public sector is a missed opportunity.”
Rather than evidence of positive use of public procurement as a lever of public policy implementation, there is more negative research evidence of the unintended consequences caused by an absence of a strategic approach. Concerns have been expressed about “over-outsourcing” by the public sector as increasingly government organisations have chosen to procure more public services from the private sector (Hendry, 1995; Hood, 1997; Boston, 1996; Gustafsson, 1995; Patterson & Pinch, 1995). Increased sourcing of clinical services with the private sector has been termed “creeping privatisation” and can be perceived as contrary to the ethos of a public sector healthcare system (Whitfield & Dix, 1998). Harland et al (2005) examined the risks and benefits of outsourcing for organisations, sectors and nations, and found that independent, fragmented public procurement decision making has resulted in some private sector organisations mopping up large numbers and value of public contracts, leading to unchecked supply market dominance. This confirms Bettis et al’s (1992) concerns of the risks of aggregated outsourcing decisions. In the MoD Hartley (2002) highlighted how increased outsourcing and contracting with the private sector is problematic for two main reasons; first, it is difficult to predict the defence capability requirement for the future; second, increased outsourcing requires contracts which are difficult to specify and within which private sector suppliers are incentivised to cut costs and provision on less tightly specified contract areas.
Internationally the South African Cosatu Parliamentary Office (2003) reports difficulties arising from shortcomings of the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act 5 of 2000, and criticises the process through which the Act was created as requiring better public participation. They highlight “problematic implementation and interpretation of this Act by several Government departments”. The US Department of Homeland Security managed to free itself up to be more flexible when it was granted exemption from US public procurement legislation where it led to conflict with the DHS core mission (Moynihan, 2005).
Hood (1997) argued that the extent of outsourcing in the public sector should relate to the culture of the state; more consumer oriented cultures may be more comfortable with procuring services from the private sector. However, there has been little international comparative research of practice in public procurement, particularly relating to its use as a lever of public policy implementation.
It has been argued by those promoting the efficiency role for government procurement that application of public procurement as a lever of social and economic reform increases costs; however, Denes (1997) showed that small business set-asides to favour smaller businesses gaining government contracts, did not result in increased costs, and actually delivered lower costs than open-bid contracts they were compared with. This finding is supported by Maloney et al (2000) who emphasise the significant role that public sector organisations can play in adopting capacity building programmes.
The International Research Study of Public Procurement investigated a number of research questions; in this paper we report findings related to two questions only. First, do governments aspire to use public procurement as a lever of government reform and, second, is there evidence of practice of it being used in this way.
The International Research Study of Public Procurement (IRSPP) was conducted in phases. The first phase involved the production, presentation and discussion of 15 structured international case studies of major reform involving public procurement. In the second phase the findings from these cases were analysed to derive common themes for further research. The third phase examined those themes in greater depth.
Phase One – structured international case studies
The public procurement literature was searched to identify features of public procurement that could provide a common structure for examining public procurement reform internationally. These features and the underpinning literature are summarised in Table 1 below.
Features of public procurement
Presence of any national agency
•Enabler of establishment of strategic relationships with suppliers (Gershon, 1999)
•Provision of ‘bridging ties’ (Warner, 2001)
•Strategic alignment of sub-agencies’ strategies (Franklin, 2001a)
•Success should be pursued at the level of individual agencies, rather than the centre (Thompson, 2000)
Regulation/ legislation constraining public procurement
•Compulsory Competitive Tendering constrains public procurement from forming good practice longer term relationships with suppliers (Steane and Walker, 2000)
•EU directives constrain public procurement practitioners (Erridge and Greer, 2002)
•Regulations constrain partnerships between public sector and private providers to be ‘partnerships within competition’ (Erridge and Nondi, 1994)
•EU directives drive illegal behaviour (Telgen and de Boer, 1997)
•But also: EU directives as a lever for professionalisation of procurement (de Boer and Telgen, 1998, Telgen, 1998)
Influence of key stakeholder groups on public procurement decisions
•Consultation of international and external stakeholders is required by law in the productions of the three main US public procurement strategy documents (Long and Franklin, 2004)
•Increased likelihood of success of strategic initiatives in government arising from stakeholder involvement (Nutt and Backoff, 1992, Long and Franklin, 2004)
•Stakeholder involvement is a means of democratic control of public decision making (de Leon, 1995)
•Some difficulties of assessing relative importance of stakeholder views (Franklin, 2001b)
•Inadequate civic involvement historically (Ingram and Smith, 1993)
•Skills, knowledge and resources of potential stakeholder participants must be assessed (Agranoff and McGuire, 1999, Klijn, 1996)
•Selective activation of stakeholder participants required (McGuire, 2002)
•Type of stakeholder involvement impacts on likely success of a policy (Ripley and Franklin, 1982)
Position of public procurement in government organisation structure
•Encouragement of government departments to work together on procurement decisions (HM Treasury, 1995, PIA, 2001)
Nature of major reform
•Co-operation and collaboration are key themes of major reform (HM Treasury/ Cabinet Office, 1998,PIA, 2001)
Barriers and constraints to major reform occurring
•Operating framework and culture of public sector can hinder adoption of good practices used in the private sector (Erridge and Greer, 2000)
Table 1: Features of public procurement and underpinning literature
Leading international academics specialising in public procurement and senior government procurement practitioners were invited to participate in this first phase of research; those who accepted came from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa, UK, and USA. Each case study was written and presented by at least two authors representing the academic community and senior practitioners. The cases were written to include material on the structure provided in Table 1 and were circulated to all participants prior to a 2 ½ day workshop. The workshop was organized into 4 parallel streams with each case being critically evaluated by other case authors and invited ‘inquisitors’ –senior practitioners from various nations and parts of the public sector. All participants were invited to provide notes of key issues for each case, and insights arising from cross-case comparison. Facilitators prepared a record of the discussions in each stream, and compiled these with participants’ notes into 4 stream reports. The written cases, presentation materials and stream reports constituted the dataset that was analysed by a research team in phase two.
To maximise the ‘real time’ comparative analysis of cases, plenary sessions were held within each stream at the end of days 1 and 2. Facilitators used the material from these plenaries and the case discussions to prepare a brief presentation summarising the main issues arising from each stream. These presentations were delivered in the final half-day and were followed by plenary discussion involving all workshop participants. This discussion was structured around a framework for public procurement (Harland et al 2000).
Phase two – derivation of common themes for further research
The facilitators prepared stream reports, to provide a record of the discussion within each stream. These reports captured:
•information on the case that was described in the presentation, but was not present in the written case – copies of slides used by presenters were analysed
•the discussion of the case – tape recordings, flip chart bullet points and notes made by participants were gathered and analysed
•observations made on forms provided to capture cross-case issues and themes
•discussions within stream plenary sessions
•key points from the Stream overview presentation on day 3
•a record of plenary discussion on day 3
An executive report, a more detailed academic report and a complete set of case studies were provided to all participants. These invited comments on key themes identified.
Phase three – examination of derived themes
Five themes were derived and agreed amongst the participants as worthy of further research; these were:
1.The policy role of public procurement
2.The professionalisation of purchasing and supply in the public sector
3.Using procurement to promote innovation
4.National approaches to managing key suppliers
5.The strategic shift of government procurement
To inform the research a questionnaire survey was designed around these themes and, via each national participant to the study, distributed and completed by senior public procurement practitioners in defence, health, education and local government. The findings of this questionnaire was used as a starting point for discussion in a second workshop of 2 ½ days. The Russian Federation joined in with this second study in addition to the previous participants. Each theme was investigated using combinations of plenary and break-out group tasks and discussions. This paper focuses on findings relating to the use of public procurement as a lever of reform.
For the purpose this paper the findings are presented in two sections examining evidence of the aspirations to use public procurement as a lever of government reform, and of its actual use.
Aspirations to use public procurement as a lever of government reform
A comparison was made across all countries involved in the study of their stated objectives of public procurement in their nations. Common themes emerged around the principles on which procurement must be based, e.g. in the South African Gauteng case there were four pillars: “Value for money; Open and effective competition; Ethics and fair dealing; Accountability and reporting”, with a fifth political one of ‘equity’. These are not dissimilar to the three key principles which shaped the procurement policy of the Singapore government: fairness; value for money and probity. A simpler division in the German system between efficiency and formality captured the essence of the conflicting demands inherent in all the stated principles. In general though, the cases revealed more similarity in the principles underpinning public procurement than differences.
The Australia case gave more detail on these principles – nine in all – but then commented on the poor integration of these objectives. In the Australian system, there was an ‘Estimates Committee’ in the national parliament dedicated to cutting expenditure, suggesting the system was not trusted to manage itself. One theme that emerged in the Australian case was the willingness of the Australian system to change and experiment. Whereas, in the main, the Belgian case revealed the inherent preference for the status quo of the procurement system in Belgium; however this risk avoidance was under threat from a recent reform initiative - Copernicus. The reform aimed to give greater autonomy to the heads of Public Administration, giving them more freedom in how to achieve the goals established by the political system. Such an emphasis on outcomes rather than constant monitoring of inputs also categorised the Australian and US state and local cases, where increasingly procurement personnel were facing new challenges to create outcomes rather than manage tender processes. The South African case was another example of aspiration towards a move to an outcome driven model of public procurement.
The restricted goals in the Singapore case (fiscal conservatism and risk avoidance) reinforced the suggestion that as the objectives set for procurement broaden so the work content of procurement broadens. However, the US case highlighted how ‘loosening’ control of public procurement may allow new forms of illegal influence to enter the system, something which Singapore has staunchly avoided. The Gauteng case was one where a comparatively revolutionary approach could be undertaken, underwritten by a new constitution. Such radical reform reflected in part both the newness of the post apartheid government and the desperation of conditions for many ordinary South Africans. Without such tumultuous stimuli, it appears reform of supply policy across nations is likely to be incremental and piece meal. Therefore, although in the German case, for example, the new role of the state was to be a catalyst and enabler of change, it was not clear how radical that change could be without external stimuli of a dramatic order. In the Canadian public works case there was a clear threat that unless the PWGSC changed to its new emphasis on specialized client service teams it might have been bypassed or closed entirely.
Dramatic change had taken place in the English NHS case, as central government had blurred the boundaries between the public and private sectors. However this supply policy was a reaction to problems of lack of investment and capacity in the NHS rather than procurement driven. The impact on the role of procurement was significant though, as purchasing on price alone as an objective changed to objectives to improve management of markets, and management of strategic relationships with various bodies including Public Private Partnerships and commissioning. The existence of a national body with a strategic and policy remit enabled a market management approach to be taken.
In the Canadian case on consortia it appeared that public entities with few resources (educational institutes) were duplicating effort across the sector in developing e-business, wasting resources they could not afford. Yet it was apparent that a certain degree of independence was considered vital by each institution. In Australia, competition had been observed between states. Part of supply policy appeared to be this decision on what independence meant, and why it was necessary. It was also notable that in forming or joining consortia as a supply policy the Canadian study suggested consortia were a response to constraints rather than a proactive strategy.
In terms of proactive supply policies, lack of adequate information for policy initiatives was highlighted in the Australian e-commerce case. In Australia the e-enablement of SMEs was a significant driver of e-procurement strategy along with promoting SME access to the Government market. However the case stated that there was a lack of information for policy making: again very few entities had good management information about their procurement profiles as a basis for business case development for e-procurement. The South African case also highlighted the need for better information to drive forward socially responsible procurement. To achieve the strategy of encouraging the participation of HDIs in public contracts, spend analysis and knowledge of supply chains was a prerequisite. In the US Federal case there was a public commitment to small businesses with a target that 21% of Federal Government spending should be with SMEs. This was one of the few cases that cited procurement officials having to deal with protests, disputes and appeals from the public on spending performance.
Many of the cases featured support for indigenous industry, but the most extreme example of purchasing supporting economic development was in the UN case. In the UN, maximum development impact from funds could be achieved by sourcing locally or regionally. The procurement function itself was then able to become a mechanism of development assistance, in that it provided institutional investment in local or regional businesses by contracting with them.
Specifically in relation to e-procurement, many cases made the argument that, for procurement, the movement from process to policy would be facilitated by adopting electronic systems. Certainly the experience in Queensland suggested that e- procurement could facilitate both a reduction in overall workload and a move to ‘higher value added work’ by purchasers.
Across the cases there was strong evidence that many nations aspired to use public procurement as a lever of change beyond simply saving public money. The most dramatic examples of high aspiration of public procurement were in South Africa, where they aspired to empower the black majority, in the US, where they aspired to develop particular types of SME, and in the UN, where they aspired to use Development Programme spending to support less developed nations. These examples were categorised as public procurement strategies aspiring to be deliverers of broader government objectives. Some cases exhibited a less proactive, central role for public procurement but aspiring to be supporters of broader government objectives. The English NHS, the Australian case and Canadian public works were all aspiring to use public procurement in this supportive way. Some nations, such as Singapore, were most strongly aspiring to be providers of cost efficiency. The two nations who most notably were fixated on rules and regulatory compliance were Belgium and Germany; they appeared to aspire most strongly towards rule compliance than any other objective for public procurement.
The discussion of the case studies in the first workshop and the deeper exploration in the second workshop provided greater understanding of the actual evidence of the use of the public procurement as a lever of government reform.
Evidence of the use of public procurement as a lever of government reform
In the US the target of 21% of Federal Government spending to be placed with particular types of SME, including native American owned, veteran owned and female owned businesses, was impressively exceeded. Their measures showed that, in fact, 23% was achieved. Not only did they aspire to use public procurement as a lever of reform, and achieve their aspiration, they also had a strong ethos to engage the public fully by exposing their practices to public scrutiny and debate. This case showed the strongest evidence of proving their performance to the public. The UN also achieved their aspirations to focus their spending on less developed nations; however, they did not go as far as the US case in opening their books to public scrutiny on this. The information was available across the UN system but not beyond that. In South Africa there was clear evidence of genuine reform; however, there were still concerns about the extent of impact. It became apparent that, whilst purchase orders were placed with black owned businesses, some of these were a front for a white owned company. They termed these ‘box-droppers’. However, it can be concluded that in these three cases there was evidence that aspirational policy was being achieved, to a certain extent, to genuinely be a deliverer of broader government objectives. There was something particularly bullish about the style and role of public procurement in these cases.
In the supporters of broader government objectives the less central, less proactive role of public procurement came through in discussions about difficulties in achieving aspirations. Procurement had more of a back seat in these situations. In the English NHS, the discussions centred on ‘influencing spending’ rather than mandating. In such as large, complex, confederal supply network as the NHS, evidence of influence varied across the various organisations and across different clinical specialisms.
Providers of cost efficiency and rule compliance nations found it easier to achieve their aspirations and to demonstrate that achievement. Straight forward efficiency and savings targets were relatively easy to work towards and to prove they had been reached. Rule compliance was achieved in Belgium as almost all public procurement practitioners were qualified lawyers.
On reflection, in the UK, Canada and Australia (all based on British governance models) public procurement was more between a rock and a hard place than the polar extreme categories. Daily practice involved negotiation, persuasion, being ignored, and some incremental successes, but one sensed that no great change to society, economy or the environment would be achieved in the short to medium term. Whereas the passion in the South African and UN cases was profound and appeared to be making impact. The dryness and rigidity of the Belgian and German cases led to their presenters joking about their hierarchical natures to always have rules and always to follow them.
Having exposed these differences, the participants were divided into four groups and they discussed how objectives could be prioritised and conflicts resolved. The groups were mixed by nation and sector. Looking across the groups the following priorities were identified:
Top ranking priorities:
•Value for money
•Education of public procurement personnel
Lower ranking priorities:
•Broader government objectives
•Level playing field - providing suppliers with equal opportunities
•Using procurement to encourage innovation
One group distinguished between current priorities, and what they would ideally like to prioritise. These more aspirational priorities included social upliftment, large cultural change, integration of government policies with procurement, real as opposed to apparent compliance, and being more innovative and joined up.
The groups then discussed how competing priorities might be resolved. These were summarized in a final plenary session where the following issues emerged:
•Public procurement needs to be braver and more proactive
•Public procurement needs to be innovative.
•Public procurement has a reputation for saying ‘no’ and should consider the ‘art of the possible’
•Agendas facing public procurement practitioners are changing from day to day
•There is not always clarity on to whom procurement practitioners are reporting?
•People issues are important and there is an international shortage of highly qualified, intelligent, experienced public procurement practitioners
•Short vs long term – there is too much short term crisis management in practice
•There is a need to ask government for clearer objectives and to clarify conflicting objectives
•All public procurement systems appeared to exhibit divided loyalties and conflicting stakeholder objectives
•Different countries do exhibit different priorities – IRSPP provided exposure to ideas around the world and a sense of appropriate groupings of like nations
The discussion of policy objectives in public procurement was broad ranging, from looking at top priorities such as value for money and efficiency, to considering lower ranking priorities such as sustainability and using procurement as a level for social reform. Participants noted that there is a difference between the objectives set by politicians that may be subject to flux, and the objectives they would aspire to achieve. Discussion centred around the need for procurement to be proactive and focus on achieving a few objectives well.
This study was an exploratory study to undertake a comparative investigation of public procurement. There was a general ‘line of inquiry’, but no specific research questions for the first workshop, then a focusing on more specific questions in the second workshop. All participants shared a desire to listen to each others’ accounts, and see what emerged earlier in the study, then to be more focused and solution oriented later. Many expressed surprise at what they learnt was occurring in other nations, and several commented on the value of learning from similar cases to their own and from cases that differed greatly. Different structures, values, scales of operation, and many other factors, proved useful for comparison.
The first main conclusion to be drawn is that this event was unique. The whole field of public procurement has received very little research attention to date. Senior practitioners, therefore, are poorly served in terms of managerial guidance, published work, education programmes and fora at which they can debate and learn from peers.
Despite the lack of international learning in the field, there were many similarities of aspirations, policies, strategies and processes across the international jurisdictions represented. The core drivers of procurement policy being aligned to, and supporting delivery of, government policy on issues such as social reform, positions public procurement as distinctly different to private sector. Some imperatives arising from technology availability in the form of e-procurement causes common issues to surface in the public and private sectors; however, the public sector will still treat the issue differently, for example in ameliorating the impact on the SME community, or the impact on less developed nations. The most striking observation from the study was the substantial impact of social reform upon the field. Academically, this prompts a stretching of the field to look to disciplines beyond purchasing, supply and operations management, towards sociology, psychology, socio-economics, organisational theory and other knowledge bases where theories and concepts exist that enable treatment of complex, multi- and inter-disciplinary issues with social features.
The other highly visible particularity of the study is that it demonstrated the extreme complexity in the multi-level systems that connect government policy, procurement policy, and practice in the supply market. Whilst some very large, multi-national, diverse private sector groups exhibit complexity, the scale and nature of the complexity appears ‘simpler’ in the private sector than was observed in this study.
Spectrum for public procurement
Just as government can move from a controlling regime to a facilitative state (Pennington and Rydin 2000) so too can procurement move from a rule compliance function to a cost down, efficiency led function, to a facilitating supporter of broader government objectives, to a deliverer of broader government objectives. The cases studies exhibited positioning along this whole spectrum of different national cases. However, because the study was case study based, it was not possible to conclude whether there was variability within national procurement systems i.e. health procurement may not be conducted in the same way as education procurement practice.
The IRSPP network has been forming over the last three years and a number of interesting developments have occurred. There have been movements of very senior practitioners within the network, arising from the contacts formed, some permanent job changes and others secondments for deep exchange of learning. The academics have become more strongly bonded, have collaborated on a number of joint publications and jointly launched the International Public Procurement conference, to be hosted in 2006 in Italy. There has been a greater exchange of PhD students within the network enabling the next generation to benefit from international learning early in their careers. But most important are the tangible impacts arising from the study; for example, the UK Office of Government Commerce changed its policy to tendering immediately after the first workshop as a result of learning from South Africa. Progress from academic research in public procurement change can only occur if our research leaps two hurdles – academic rigour and output, and impact on practice. This was only possible in the IRSPP because very senior practitioners committed to the research and engaged fully throughout.
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