NHS procurement process must change, says O’Donovan

Matt O’Donovan, CEO of WiFi SPARK, discusses his views on NHS procurement in this Open Access Government article

Procurement in the public sector has been a long debated and controversial subject. Right across the sector, there has been an oligopoly of huge organisations dominating the market, dictating terms and generally having a free run.

This has to a large extent meant that smaller, more innovative firms have been denied access, which in turn means the public sector and the taxpayer missing out on more efficient and cost-effective solutions.

The NHS is certainly no exception in this. Contract length for some non-medical technology, for example, has been up to 30 years in length. These contracts are also covered in so many clauses for automatic extensions and ‘fines’ for Trusts that are deemed by these organisations to go against the nature of the agreement, or just the fact that the vendor simply hasn’t made its money, that they can run even longer and cost even more, in some cases with legal action being threatened

In any other sector, 30-year contracts would be deemed laughable, but for too long in the public sector, it has been an accepted part of procurement, particularly when it comes to technology. Inarguably, contracts of such lengths should never have been legalised, especially in the technology sector.

The Government has, of course, introduced G-Cloud. There have been undoubted successes, G-Cloud is more agile than other platforms, with its ease of access and a faster procurement processes, it has been invaluable in light of 2019 NHS WiFi deadline, where free WiFi will need to be available across all NHS estates. However, the original aim of giving the public sector full access to smaller more innovative companies, cutting contract lengths and generally giving more choice and value for money, has for the large part, failed.

It remains a market dominated by the few. With contract lengths running over decades it means the NHS is unable to get its hands on the latest technological advances, but are instead stuck with an over-priced, outdated piece of kit. WiFi is a good example. A good example is patient entertainment. The 30-year old legacy contract has meant that ageing technology has severely impacted the roll out of fast and effective WiFi for patients. Giving the patient what they want, i.e. good connectivity, the ability to watch what they want, when they want, on a device of their choosing, for an affordable price, can make a real difference to recovery times. It is what they expect in any other aspect of their life, at work or at home, so why should their time in hospital, when they really could do with an uplift or some familiarity, be any different?

Procurement processes must change. There has to be a change of mentality too, going with the same old provider, because that’s what has always happened isn’t good enough anymore. Patients, staff and visitors all expect better, and frankly deserve it. Trusts need to look at working with some of the great smaller UK companies out there that provide cost-effective, cutting-edge solutions, should be an easy choice.

With budgets being stretched like never before and the NHS under real strain, now is the time to have a complete re-evaluation of procurement processes. It should not be about the few massive organisations, but about the many; the patients, the staff and the relatives. Too often they are forgotten within NHS procurement.

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