4theRegion has held a series of Appreciative Enquiries into Procurement.  With diverse participants from the public and private sector, we’ve had engagement from Carmarthenshire Council, City Deal, Swansea Council, the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner in Welsh Government, and businesses including major contractors and a mix of smaller local businesses.

Immediately apparent are some of the frustrations felt by both small and large businesses about the extent of bureaucracy around procurement. The sheer volume of work involved in any significant tender process was cited repeatedly as a barrier to small businesses.  Larger businesses reported teams of people devoting months of work to complete just the pre-qualification stage of framework agreements, and the frustration of having to repeat that process every four years to re-qualify.

Other frustrations include the apparent disregard for the immeasurable community benefit of using a local supplier.  The recycling of that money in the local economy, the community projects for schools, the elderly and others, the ripple effects of local people having jobs – these were considered to be “invisible values” that regionally-based firms are able to contribute to wider society.  Our participants felt these beneficial impacts aren’t being effectively demanded, revealed, measured, scored or valued during the tender process.

And of course everyone agreed that the focus on price – and in particular on short term cost, over anything else, is the fundamental problem. Procurement must focus on the whole life / long term cost of goods and services, in environmental, economic and social terms. And must recognise that the focus on price tends to favour the huge corporations who can afford to be cheaper, but who generally can’t deliver the lasting social and economic wellbeing that we all want to see. 

All participants have felt it has been useful to hear the honest views of businesses expressed in this forum.  Colleagues from the local authorities also endorsed the collaborative approach of the meeting.  All too often, discussions about procurement pit the large purchasers against the suppliers in a blame game, but everyone agreed that in fact we are all on the same team, and only by working together will we deliver the change we want to see. 

Based on the principle of crowdsourcing wisdom, 4theRegion is on a mission to ensure businesses, as well as third sector organisations and communities, are meaningfully engaged in the transformation process, helping to shape a new way of working together.  So, emerging from the initial discussion, the following questions guided discussion.

How might we change the way major organisations buy goods and services so that all the benefits of that procurement, and the £6bn of public spend, are retained in the region?

How might we make procurement a force for good, and ensure that the “invisible value” and “added value” that comes from regional procurement is recognised and scored as part of the tender process?

Through the process of appreciative enquiry – acknowledging the best of what is and could be, imagining a better future, and capturing opportunities to move forward – a shared vision has emerged during our sessions, of a region transformed by ‘procurement as a force for good’. High quality jobs and academia, flourishing industries, green transportation, clean air and wellbeing – a glimpse of what could be, if we get this right.

The overarching intention of the events is to start to link procurement principles and processes with the aims of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the 7 well-being goals for Wales. We regard this as a huge opportunity for the region – not just the permission but also the statutory obligation to change the way we work. Local Authorities and others know they must evolve in accordance with the new law, and the question now is how.

An array of themes and practical ideas have emerged from our discussions so far. 

  • Narrative, not checkboxes – give businesses the opportunity to explain why they are the best choice, and their added value, even if they don’t “tick all the boxes”.

  • Human, face to face relationships between buyers and sellers, not the “computer says No approach”

  • Industry involved in shaping upcoming tenders – meet the buyer events much earlier in the process.

  • Simplify!

  • Demand, measure and score tenders based on whole of life value.

  • Embedding ethical standards – fair trade, b-corp, living wage – in procurement as a way of making change possible and affordable in the private sector.

  • Business Not As Usual – Just because something doesn’t currently work the way we wish it did, doesn’t mean it CANT – be prepared to think the unthinkable, rethink and rewrite the rules.

While Local Authority partners are focussed on ‘upskilling regional businesses’ so that we might succeed in winning more tenders, regional businesses wondered whether we are simply being trained to jump hoops in a broken system. More emphasis on engaging and training public sector procurement staff in better ways of measuring “added value”, and on what the Wellbeing Act means for them, was felt to be a good idea, and one that is immediately implementable.

In terms of outputs, groups have discussed the possibility of drafting a new kind of PQQ, and/or a set of procurement principles, which we would expect to feed into policy-making at all levels. 

Participants have agreed that the first priority is INVOLVEMENT. Let’s ensure we continue to have this conversation with more and more of the right people, including communities affected by decisions on Procurement, businesses and third sector organisations with a desire to contribute, procurement staff within public organisations, decision makers and policy makers at all levels.

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, the City Region Growth Deal, and a new era of regional collaboration in South West Wales. All this context makes NOW absolutely the right time to be having these conversations, and 4theRegion is putting together a calendar of further events on this subject, which we hope you will want to be part of.

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