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Getting To The Top Table: Elevating Procurement in Local Authorities

There seems to have been a never-ending set of challenges for public procurement, but leaders are recognising this state of permacrisis as their normality.  As local authorities face another financially challenging year ahead, the adaptability and resilience of procurement, combined with the central role they play, means they’re well-placed to help tackle some of the biggest issues affecting local authorities today.

Elections in the UK and US, new legislation, the inevitability of more Section 114 notices, increased public scrutiny, demand continuing to outstrip supply, acute pressure on critical areas such as social care – all things that will impact the year ahead. We look beyond the predictions and using the experience of our CPO Advisory Forum, share the tactics public procurement leaders can employ to elevate their role and ease the burden on teams in 2024.


Take your seat at the Top Table.

Procurement is now central to some of the biggest challenges facing the public sector and that’s why it’s more important than ever that Procurement’s voice is heard. For this to happen, top table need to believe that your voice is worth hearing…

You need to demonstrate how your actions reach far beyond the boundaries of your department and can drive innovation and service improvement across your local authority, aligned with key priorities.​  If you can give the wider external market context then you’ll be bringing something no-one else can.​ And if you can leverage the best thinking from other authorities and the wider market, backed up with data not just opinions, the value you can provide increases exponentially.​

It’s easier said than done though… ​Today, stretched local government procurement teams are managing growing spend, across an ever-increasing number of suppliers, and with declining spending power. Plus, there’s the megatrends – the new needs and requirements you’re being asked to meet increased demand from cost-of-living, to asylum, to social care, whilst also looking at digitisation, sustainability, and carbon reduction.

It’s a formidable challenge but there are tactics that can help you.


Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Partnering up to build local resilience requires purpose but you’ve done it before to deal with emergencies such as COVID; now you need to commit for the long term.

Collaboration not only reduces costs and risks, but you can also gain access to a pool of knowledge and expertise that may not exist within your own team.

Whilst there are few opportunities to collaborate on procurement projects outside of your region, there is huge potential to share knowledge and practical assets to support each other at such a critical time, especially when it comes to implementing the Procurement Bill and challenges that are faced nationally across local government.  Find the common issues and be prepared to share information and experience, and support each other to ease the burden.


“Collaboration is not necessarily about procuring together but working together to share knowledge and experience and navigate new strategies.”
Elizabeth McKenna, Deputy Director of Delivery STAR Procurement and CPO Advisory Chair


Even on a regional level, where local initiatives and conflicting targets can sometimes act as barriers to joint procurement, the need to address some of the big issues of the day, such as competing for the same social care resources, can bring about more innovative solutions when viewed collaboratively.

Finding expertise in new and emerging markets is vital but it isn’t easily accessed at a local level. The ability to tap into market trends, engage key innovators in emerging categories, and learn from procurement teams who have broken new ground is essential. ​The huge rise in demand for Electric Vehicle Infrastructure, is just one example where it’s paramount that knowledge is shared.


“The opportunity, I think, is to find more ways that we can work productively together. There’s still a lot of fragmentation in local government and ways that we could share information, share insights, and pull ideas. Some of that collaborative work, then helps us build extra capacity that might be missing within individual local authorities. I also think that we can use data more effectively.”
Prof. Richard Simmons, University of Stirling & CPO Academic Chair


Make data and digitisation your allies.

Collaboration and identifying expertise and trends within emerging markets is made far easier if you have visibility of who else is procuring those goods and services. Moreover, investing in data releases capacity from your team and empowers your ability to inform and communicate with authority.

Harnessing the wealth of public sector data via available tools offers a holistic view of procurement and market activity.  Time spent researching can be significantly reduced – when resource is scarce you need to focus your team on the most valuable tasks. Good data can also help bridge gaps in expertise and makes knowledge sharing faster and easier.

There’s now more data to tackle Scope 3 emissions too; you can make better use of it to channel your efforts into the areas of biggest impact for your carbon reduction strategy and to report back on targets.

Utilising data is a smart move to identify real need, increase supplier and market knowledge, and report more accurately.

There’ll be increasing use of digitisation and AI technologies to get non-contract spend under control and to ease the burden of repetitive tasks, particularly in contract development. Exploring these technologies is another huge opportunity to seek feedback from your peers on their performance and successful implementation, and make sure you take time to learn from the commercial sector too.  Even in pressured times focus on the softer skills needed for success; communicating a strong rationale, focus on requirements gathering, and on getting change management right from the off.


Support your local economy.

The procurement bill will bring greater transparency for suppliers, and local small suppliers will be better supported and encouraged, helping to reach local spend targets. More can still be done now to identify and invite trusted local suppliers to tender at the outset and to improve communication during the process; focussing on these two areas results in higher participation throughout the process and increased chance of success.  Increasing spend with small suppliers not only supports job creation and growth, it boosts the local and national economy by keeping more pounds spent to successive suppliers within your own and neighbouring regions.


Rethink your roles and responsibilities.

“So capacity continues to be a huge issue, both in terms of having skilled people out there to recruit from but also in terms of just how few people there are in recruitment teams in local government, and how the workload gets spread.”
Prof. Richard Simmons, University of Stirling and CPO Advisory Academic Chair


While some capacity and role improvement can be gained by sharing expertise and resources, investing in data, and process optimisation, there’s still a significant recruitment and retention issue. Differing skills need to be nurtured dependent on the relationship procurement has between suppliers and the wider business, and whether there is a centralised or devolved structure. Reassessing the role of relationship managers and category managers can help balance the load more effectively too.  Devolved structures typically result in procurement functions offering wider service and client support. Educating the wider organisation about the role and importance of procurement and the processes involved can help with compliance and reduce the workload – think about this at every level from how you report, to how individual issues are being resolved by your teams and how feedback is gathered, so together you can create longer term understanding and independence.

Seeking out aptitude over skills and investing in training to nurture individuals from other sectors is helping councils to increase the recruitment pool. Many are now inviting applications from people new to local authority work but who have good transferable skills. These individuals can also bring a fresh outlook, perhaps less hindered by the effects of successive and unrelenting pressure placed on our public sector buyers.


Build stronger relationships

“It strikes me that the need to build better relationships is fundamental to many of the challenges we face. Whether it be within our own procurement teams, internal stakeholders, suppliers, or other councils we want to collaborate with. Educating our colleagues about the role and relevance of procurement, sharing greater knowledge about our own spending and supplier base, building an understanding of the wider market, and nurturing supplier relationships to reduce risk and build supply chain resilience. This will increase understanding of our own role and open doors to drive change.”
Lisa McQuaide, Flintshire County Council


Ultimately, you can’t face the challenges ahead alone – there’s too much complexity.  Work with your peers to cultivate knowledge and expertise, and to learn from collective experience. Prioritise building a network of support and invest in the right tools and intelligence to ease the burden on limited resources and provide the evidence you need to drive initiatives forward.


About CPO Advisory Forum

The CPO Advisory brings together Heads of Procurement in Local Authorities to talk about current challenges and by sharing practical experience and guidance, support each other and improve outcomes.  The forum meets twice per year in person, and virtually to discuss key topics. There are working groups focussed on Procurement Reform, Digitisation and Automation, Sustainability, and  Tailspend.


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