• Q&A
  • July 31, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 0

How to humanise public procurement

David Kershaw, UK Government procurement adviser, is rewriting the rules

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David Kershaw, procurement adviser for the UK government, would be the first to tell you that upon taking his first contracting job, he had no idea what procurement really meant.

Now director of Delta Procurement, Kershaw started his procurement career by writing out purchase orders by hand on carbon paper and faxing to suppliers. It came naturally, and he rose through the ranks, from local government on England’s south coast to the top of the UK civil service.

Having worked at the UK’s Government Digital Service, the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office, he became an advocate for plain-talking procurement, rewriting the rules of what it meant to be a “procurement person”. Here, he discusses where procurement is going wrong, which skills are needed to do it differently, and how to better shout about what you’re doing as a public servant working in contracting.

If you look across the procurement sector, what would you say are the elephants in the room — the problems that no one is talking about?

The first elephant for me in the government procurement sector is the hierarchy, which you get in any government organisation. There are people trying to do something about that, through the One Team Gov movement.

Another elephant in the room is our understanding of the market we are buying from. You would never get people around your house to do work for you having not researched it properly beforehand. Why is it any different with someone else’s money?

Another elephant in the room is our openness. Part of procurement is about being open, fair and transparent. There are lots of regulations, laws and policies that you should know. I say to anyone that I speak to: knowing every single regulation is not the most important thing. What’s important is that whatever you do is open – giving all suitably qualified entities an opportunity to bid.

We’re still not great at being transparent. I reflected on this, and in response, I created a movement called #ProcurementHour, which I run on Twitter. There are lots of people out there who’ve got questions about procurement: citizens, users, procurers and suppliers. It gives them a space to ask those questions and to get them answered.

What are the skills you need to get procurement right? How do you acknowledge these problems, and how do you transcend them?

Know your market and know what you’re buying. Know the services, the products and the supply chain of that market. Know how much things cost. Know your organisation’s procurement process well. Know the spend thresholds, know how many tenders you are likely to receive. Know when and how the regulations apply.

If you don’t know your market, get out there and know your market. But be open about it. Blog about it! Tweet about what you’ve done. Hold events. And tell people about what was discussed.

“Let outsiders in. Listen to them. Apply their thoughts and experience.”

Send out a tweet saying, “I’m the digital lead for so-and-so department. Next week, I’m holding an event at such and such place. Anyone is free to come.” Put yourself out there, while redacting confidential things: numbers, figures or names. Let outsiders in. Listen to them. Apply their thoughts and experience.

And another important skill: get to grips with the culture quickly. Even though it’s 36°C today in London, you’ll see I’m dressed in a suit and tie. That’s because I’m working at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and that’s their culture. But if I were in a digital team in another setting, I’d be wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

Procurement people are often on the outside, but they don’t have to be. If the team’s culture is to go for a beer, then go out with them — you don’t need to actually drink the beer, but you need to be present. If your team’s culture is to do a daily stand up at 10 o’clock, join it and ask questions.

If you were advising a government outside of the UK to rebuild their procurement system, what are the three things that you would tell them to do?

You have to get your procurement team involved from day zero. Share good working practices and let outsiders know the culture they’re working with. Give procurement people the opportunity to tell other team members a bit about procurement, so it’s not isolated. Say, “this is what procurement is, these are the rules, but we’re welcome to challenges”.

“As a procurement person in government, you’re not giving away the nuclear codes. Celebrate your success. Say how you delivered something good for government and saved it some money.”

Prototypes are good. Don’t fear the prototype because it’s not the finished product. There’s a magic word called “draft”: use it.

Make sure your governance structure is fit for purpose. Don’t spend three hours in a governance meeting on a contract that’s only costing £10,000. Be flexible: try pop-up governance [a governance structure that only exists for a specific project or purpose, which can be dismantled after the project is over]. You could also try peer-led governance, checking in with your colleagues informally rather than going through a formal board.

Look at the Agile principles: people over processes. Think simply.

That’s one of your key principles. How can we encourage public servants to value simplicity?

Give them freedom. People in government are intelligent and experienced. They’ve been through all these vetting processes to be the best of the best. Let them get on with it.

Let people learn about other things. Allow them to have a network: give them the strength and breadth to let them learn from others.

As a procurement person in government, you’re not giving away the nuclear codes. Celebrate your success. Say how you delivered something good for government and saved it some money.

~~~

As I left our conversation, I reflected on Kershaw’s philosophy. In his eyes, people, not processes, were the main drivers for effective procurement. The rules were important, but they weren’t everything.

That night, I logged on to Twitter and posed a question to Kershaw’s #ProcurementHour community: If you could give one procurement skill to every public servant, what would you teach them?

Within minutes, I was flooded with replies. There was Alison Smith (@PurchasingCoach), who told me that she’d love for civil servants to be encouraged to find insights within data, “looking for the patterns and digging into them to uncover the diamonds hidden within”.


Poss Apostolou (@I_am_Poss), formerly of the UK Government Digital Service and now a COO at a GovTech company, said he’d give civil servants a dose of patience. He emphasised that if procurement is about value, it doesn’t “just happen”, and it isn’t fast.


A user called @ProcurementPunk cheekily told me that he’d rather have civil servants have a procurement degree, or bust.

Kershaw rounded it off, echoing a suggestion from Apostolou. “Procurement people need to better understand their users,” he wrote. People over processes, again. — Emma Sisk

The interview has been condensed for clarity.

[Photo credit: Unsplash/William Iven]

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