COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate public sector procurement

Chris Proctor, CEO of Oneserve, discusses how this pandemic could actually accelerate public sector procurement

We have already seen barriers coming down in traditional procurement processes, but they have to stay down if the sector is to move forward.

The current situation has brought about comprehensive changes in all of our personal and professional lives. We are adapting to new ways of working, exercising and socialising, and because of this we are using new technology and solutions, that up until recently would not have been on our radar.

Technology, so long talked about by many sectors is now having to be adopted to allow companies to run their day-to-day processes and procedures. This acceleration has been seen in the public sector almost more than any other. This may be because it was coming from a relatively low starting point, but nonetheless, the changes and more importantly the speed of those changes has been, on the whole, impressive.

Pre-COVID-19

In the years preceding the pandemic, we saw various attempts to improve the public sector’s procurement practice, particularly when it comes to the adoption of technology. G-Cloud was introduced in 2012 and was meant to ‘balance’ up the public sector technology procurement landscape, so long dominated by a few huge companies, offering very little value and virtually no innovation. G-Cloud itself had some success, but with each new iteration, the application process got more complicated, to the extent that small companies were having to hire other businesses to help them complete the forms, in order to secure a place in the marketplace. It also did very little to alter the face of the slow-moving public sector procurement practice, which continued to dominate the market.

The whole public sector, including housing, a sector with which we have a large amount of experience, understood the need to adopt new, innovative technology in order to help address some of the key issues impacting the sector, but the barrier of bureaucracy continued to slow or even halt progress.

The acceleration of technology

The result of the pandemic has meant that the public sector has had to adjust quickly. As we all get used to this new “normal”, we have witnessed the NHS seek support from smaller, more innovative companies to resolve issues that needed immediate attention. Those offering technology via Software as a Service (SaaS), remote working solutions and remote clinical solutions, have all been taken on quickly and efficiently and are already making a huge difference, with many surgeries and hospitals unlikely to return to the old ways of working. Indeed, these are all technologies that the public sector as a whole knew would have to be adopted at some point, but the bureaucratic procurement system that remained in place meant that it would have been a long, drawn-out and expensive process, that would have favoured the larger companies.

In housing, the pandemic has meant there is now and will continue to be a substantial increase in demand. Any resulting recession will see the need for more social housing requirements adding to the already great demand. Also, social housing providers are seeing the way that they can maintain properties and ensure healthy living conditions for tenants, during the pandemic change substantially. Solutions that carefully record jobs completed, access to properties, tenant communication have to be implemented to ensure work is undertaken correctly and in-line with current and ever-changing Government advice. Again, these are changes that the sector knew would have to be implemented in light of current and forthcoming regulations – in many cases, COVID-19 has accelerated this trend and cut through the procurement processes to bring on board such technology.

We’re not there yet

Undoubtedly a post-COVID-19 world will be different and in many ways will, and already is, forcing a new, more innovative way of thinking. A way of thinking that has cut through the old processes, and more importantly proven it is possible. However, we are also seeing the Government renew existing relationships with huge companies, often for more money. In April we saw Capita, the outsourcing giant extend its contract with the Ministry of Justice to provide electronic tagging, worth £114m over three years.

So, whilst the procurement practice in the public sector has seen some positive changes, COVID-19 has also meant that the Government seems to be, in some cases, simply renewing and extending contracts with existing suppliers, rather than taking it back through the procurement process. We should be embracing the positive changes COVID-19 has brought about. The levels of improvisation and innovation from companies outside of the usual sphere of public sector suppliers (including the likes of Dyson and Mercedes F1 team) has shown potentially just what the sector is missing out on. To simply go back to the old ways of procuring technology would be a huge missed opportunity for the sector.

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