Aiken PR

The Briefing

Accountability needed for procurement

by Aiken PR

23/10/2018

Franklin D Roosevelt will be remembered for many things with highly respected commentators placing him as one of the three greatest US President’s. 

Throughout his term he utilised Federal government spending to invest in the future of America with infrastructural, educational and health investments all key components of his legacy.

In 1933, he introduced ‘The New Deal’ which was a strategic programme of investment aimed at securing the prosperity and sustainability of the US during the Great Depression.

Launching the initiative, he set out the very significant challenges that lay ahead stating, ‘In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties…taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income’

His foresight and vision to rebuild the US economy and wider society paid long–term dividends, despite the internal political opposition to the plans at the time.

As we know building for the future is key to any ambitious economy however to deliver upon strategic policy objectives, the private sector must work hand in glove with the public sector where cohesion, best practice and governance are a given.

Here in Northern Ireland there is acute awareness of the stalled infrastructural projects which are once again under the microscope, with new legislative developments being brought forward by the Secretary of State. As we wait on the guidance about the full exercise of functions, the extent of the sticking plaster is apparent with no new policy programmes or schemes or major public expenditure commitments expected in the short term. Roosevelt’s new deal rest’s easy.  

The background to all of this is that departmental spending and the procurement process, at least to some degree, continues in the absence of Ministers. How is this impacting key issues such as cohesion, best practice, risk management and governance?

Every year the UK government spends billions of pounds on thousands of private sector contracts, ranging from global companies to sole traders with the National Audit Office estimating that just over £250bn of central and local government money went to private suppliers in the 2015–16 financial year.

 

With the fall of Carillion earlier this year inclusive of 450 public sector contracts, the issue of procurement both at central and regional government is very much in the spotlight.  Some of the criticism labelled against public sector buyers in relation to Carillion was their ability to manage risk and improve data with questions being asked about concentrating so many contracts and services in the hands of a few.

 

Northern Ireland, as with Wales and Scotland has its own public procurement policy with twelve principles that govern its administration. It is hugely important area of regional government that requires consistent reform, review and above all good governance.

It was another US President Harry S Truman who coined the phrase ‘the buck stops here’, having kept a sign with the phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. That accountability to which Truman so aptly referred should always be robust with its arm across all functions of government including the procurement process. The responsibility for public procurement policy in Northern Ireland lies with the Procurement Board, chaired by the Finance Minister. Our political status means that this important function is another key area where we have lost governance and the ultimate responsibility of a departmental Minister. At the moment, it’s not a case of where the buck stops, but where it starts.

Public apathy towards the political and economic discourse is exacerbated by this lack of accountability and transparency, with the scale of financial challenges faced by all sections of our public sector accentuating. Once again, it’s the civil service, in unchartered territory and in the eye of budgetary storms overseeing both financial management and a challenging procurement process to maximise the output and impact from scarce resources.

Reduced public spending budgets, can impact the quality of suppliers in key areas such as health, education and infrastructure, adding to the pressures and creating challenges in front line services, skills programmes and economic development.  Never has it been more important to have a procurement service that efficiently delivers the very best quality for the people of Northern Ireland.

Procurement issues and the role of governance played out in the Oireachtas last week with Denis Naughten, Minister for Communications, climate action and the environment resigning following controversy around his contacts with David McCourt whose company Granahan McCourt is leading the last remaining consortium for the National Broadband Plan contract.  While this is a very particular example relating to the Minister himself, it serves to highlight where accountability should ultimately lie.

Supply chains, fiscal policies and public spending are all key levers for successful and impactful government programmes and they cannot be left to languish.  Civil Servants in Northern Ireland are likely to be making some important decisions but possibly not others, they can oversee significant financial processes and procedures that are existing but are unlikely to make new decisions involving high levels of public spending.  Where does the accountability start and where does it stop with all of this?

With the lack of focus and accountability on implementing our most recent programme for government, we are being driven further away from the outcome focused economy we so badly need where our major projects are being completed and are delivering for society.  Mark Twain sums it up best, ‘stand still and fall behind’.