Government needs to improve its record in outsourcing and commission a large scale review of public procurement, according to a new report from thinktank Reform.
Titled Please Procure Responsibly: The state of public service commissioning, it takes a broad brush look at commissioning that has a relevance for the outsourcing of digital services in the public sector.
Its overall verdict is critical, highlighting where “weak or underperforming elements in the commissioning cycle have led to failings” in procuring services.
Writing in the report’s foreword, chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier MP says: “Government cannot simply absolve itself of responsibility when it contracts out the delivery of services to the private sector. These contracts involve vast sums of taxpayers’ money and often deliver front line services to the public.”
Among the report’s criticisms are that departments and local authorities have not made sufficient investments in training – despite a positive lead from the Government Commercial Function and Crown Commercial Service; and that too many resources are invested in the contracting-out phase of procurement and not enough in the monitoring of outsourced services.
This is creating a need for more cost-efficient digital training schemes and an expansion of institutions such as the Public Sector Transformation Academy.
Lack of clarity
In addition, there is not enough clarity around risk and accountability, with insufficient scope for public scrutiny of public service contracts. This is despite the recent publication of the Outsourcing Playbook by the Cabinet Office.
In response, the report says there should be lot more transparency of contracts without compromising competition, the report says.
It advocates that the Government carry out a comprehensive review of public procurement to identify where the resources need to be directed for improvements – citing areas such as regulation, skills and transparency.
Along with this there could be a new independent regulator to provide guidance and scrutiny around the behaviour of commissioners and providers, and for oversight of the market.
Other recommendations include:
The Cabinet Office should create a ‘make or buy’ flowchart to support decisions on outsourcing.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should produce a national guidance framework and toolkit on identifying and quantifying the social value in public service contracts.
There should be a national training framework for public sector officials responsible for major procurements.
The Government Commercial Function should provide an advisory service.
The Cabinet Office should publish online a list of authorities that have been found to have failed to publish tenders and awards on the Contracts Finder website.
Government should commission an independent review of regulation of public service markets.
Hillier adds: “We have seen some improvements in commercial capability in the civil service in recent years but are concerned that the expertise and guidance is not being effectively shared more widely, both across government and the wider public sector.
“Government departments are still not learning from each other’s mistakes and sharing their own across government to avoid them happening again.”