27 February 2009

Procurement... hrummph!!

Just penned this to exorcise some of my feelings about procurement and its various practices - it was good catharsis!!

13 ways to ensure that Procurement Executives get best value from purchasing leadership and organisational development consultancy

1.    Make sure that the PQQ is at least 65 pages long with 367 separate items of information to gather. It is well known that the best consultants in this arena thoroughly enjoy and indeed have bucketfuls of time to answer numerous questions about their own policies on health & safety, quality, complaints handling, business continuity and hand washing protocols (even though many of them work in small or single person firms).


2.    Be sure to embed the description of the requirement somewhere towards the middle of the specification document as this helps ensure the consultant will read all 188 items about the terms and conditions of the contract. Whatever you do, label the requirement in some way that means it is not easily found. You want people to dig for what you want them to do for you.


3.    Take care to include at least two, if not three different deadline dates as this helps the consultant keep alert. A single clear deadline date has been shown to produce only poor quality tender documents.


4.    Learn to use the ‘cut and paste’ function of your word processor. It is an invaluable tool when compiling PQQs since it then becomes remarkably easy to produce document paragraph numbering arrangements that only the very best consultants can hope to fathom.


5.    Be sure to ask several ‘wild card’ questions that will sort the men/women from the boys/girls. For example asking the question “what percentage of your core capability would be represented by this opportunity?” is so deliciously full of loosely defined words that this will provide an excellent filter and criterion for assembling the final list of candidates.


6.    Do know that the worst Leadership and OD consultants around have far too much flair, verve, enthusiasm and creativity to want to engage with the detailed procurement processes that you design. A crucial way to ensure your organisation ends up hiring the best is to make your procedures disproportionately complex in relation to the requirement being tackled. A good rule of thumb is ask 15 PQQ questions for every day of the consultant’s time that she/he might end of spending on the project.


7.    Even though this kind of consultancy is essentially an activity involving lots of words, some reports and perhaps training / facilitation materials, be sure to ask several questions about the ‘materials handling’, RIDDOR[1] and transportation during the course of the project roll out. The best consultants in this arena will have gained the highest levels of environmental impact assessments and accreditation to international sustainability standards.


8.    Policies on matters relating to diversity, staff development, complaints handling, and quality assurance are essential measures of how well consultants practice in these areas. It is well known for example, that the organisations with the best performances in these areas have enumerable and voluminous policies on all these and related areas. In other words – when in doubt ask for a written policy, in triplicate.


9.    Treat these consultants at arm’s length. Many of them are known to be not much better than ‘snake oil’ salespeople with whom you cannot trust yourself. They have ‘Svengali’ like powers of verbal persuasion so whatever you do, do not talk with them. Ensure that they can only communicate with you via email or even better the e-procurement website.


10.  When answering questions put on the e-procurement website ensure that your answers restate what you have already put in the documentation. Their attempts to get you to ‘explain’ what you really meant by (for example) “detail what experience you have of working within the parameters of Government procedures and protocols” must be met with equally impenetrable explanations. They are only trying to catch you out!


11.  Another good stock phrase to use in response to enquiries is “that information is not available at this stage of the procurement process”. This will handle most of the questions put and indeed will inspire creativity from the consultants asking the questions. Their attempts to ‘make something up’ in the absence of a clear specification are remarkably effective at helping you choose the best value supplier.


12.  Even though you are sourcing professional expertise here and a good number of your questions will relate to this, do not be put off from putting in place procedures that essentially treat these suppliers like commodities. Many of the questions you use when sourcing (for example) office products, utility supplies and other bulk purchasing can be used with these consultants too.


13.  Always have in reserve the tried and tested procurement methodology of “numbers in a hat”. Occasionally, despite your best efforts to make the PQQ process as tortuous as possible, you may well still get far more responses back than you have the resources to analyse adequately. At this point you can bring in this method. Allocate a number to each one and ask a colleague to pick a few numbers at random. By the universal laws of probability, fate and serendipity, you will automatically and miraculously pull out the best candidates to go onto the next stage of your procurement process!

I hope these guidelines help. None of the examples are made up (well, perhaps the hand-washing example was – although watch this space in this age of increasing infections) and have been drawn from my experience in bidding against many invitations to tender and pre qualification questionnaires. Like any management tool, procurement used well, can be a real boon to organisations in sourcing the best possible suppliers. 

As a long term advocate and practitioner in the field of continuous improvement, I am a robust supporter of good procurement practice. I also consider it my responsibility to challenge poor practice when I see or experience it. This may be to my cost of course and means, perhaps, I do not gain access to some business that I might if I were more compliant and adaptable. But, just as there is ‘humbug’, ‘blarney’ and ‘baloney’ in consultancy (and politics and religion while I am on the point!) – there are also increasing amounts in procurement too, I feel. 

If good procurement practice is about securing the best possible supplier (a supplier who meets or indeed even exceeds all the specified requirements at the cheapest cost), how do we know? Not only must procurement deliver best value, it must itself be best value as well. 

One of my concerns is that procurement processes are self-reinforcing. The supplier is chosen and the right choice must have been made because the supplier ticked all the right boxes. But is it possible that a better supplier was excluded by dint of the procurement process itself having inbuilt (and perhaps untested) assumptions & criteria? How are procurement processes evaluated?

(c) Jon Harvey 2009

[1] Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995

26 February 2009

Creative pest control #2

Another excellent example from the same prison governor:

Food Waste

Once again this is linked to pest control. We have a significant problem with rat infestation, which comes from having an extensive old sewerage system. It is compounded by the fact that prisoners take their meals in their cells during lockdown periods. Any waste food is collected when they are next let out of their cells, usually within 1-2 hours. Unfortunately many prisoners refuse to wait this long, as the food starts to smell and is unsightly, so they flush the food waste down their toilets. This becomes an abundant food source for the rats, meaning they can breed faster etc... All efforts to get prisoners to act responsibly with regard to this had failed, until one manager came up with the idea of supplying all cells with a small bin, and a supply of bio degradable sealable plastic bags. These were issued to prisoners and quickly became a more popular and efficient way of disposing of food waste hygienically. It also allowed prisoners to feel as if they were contributing to reducing a problem in their community. The food waste bags are collected and recycled through an on site machine that turns food waste into compost.

This work is not developed far enough to be able to quantify expenditure against predicted cost savings on recycling and pest control, but it is an example of a slightly more innovative approach to solving a cou-ple of ongoing problems.

Creative pest control #1

An example from a prison service governor:


Many large prison establishments have significant problems with pest control, be it rat infestation or pigeon colonies. [My prison] is no different from these, and for many years has poured a significant amount of money (thousands of pounds each year) into traditional contracted services to deal with these pests. In 2007 whilst debating ways of cutting this cost it was suggested that we could possibly use a bird of prey to scare away the pigeon colonies.

We were aware that another local prison, [a nearby young offenders institution], had a number of birds of prey that they use to work and show with the Young Offenders. We approached them about our ideas for pest control and they were positive that birds of prey could help.

We diverted a portion of the pest control budget into the training of two staff to look after the birds of prey, and procured two Harris Hawks as the pigeon scarers. The Hawks fly twice a day over the establishment and have had a positive effect in reducing the numbers of pigeons on site, which in turn has reduced our pest control and cleaning costs.

An example of "blue sky thinking" at it's best.

First Contact

Here is an example of scheme a Fire Service officer told me about. It's aim is to ensure greater coordination between local social partners:

Essentially this is whereby all partners invovled go about their own business with regard to community activity. If they come into contact with a person or family who they consider would possibly benefit from further support (vulnerable) from a partner organisation then they complete a short form (format and questions agreed by all partners) with some key questions on.

Dependant on the yes or no response to these questions this generates referrals to other agencies and thus from a single visit from 1 organisation can facilitate several other visits. This is turn can provide huge benefit to individuals who may not have known such services were available. 

Currently the project is a pilot but is planned to be launched [county] wide. 

More jobs

Here is another from a local government colleague:

The best example I can give from a regeneration perspective was a project I was involved in a few years ago in [London]. We paid a relatively small amount (c £5k) for a high level development appraisal of the potential for 3 industrial sites to be internally reconfigured following the construction of a new access road. The sites owners were exceptionally cautious and some completely reluctant about making any changes but we were able to show them through the development appraisal that by undertaking this reconfiguration, they could make better use of their land and also release some pockets for further development (there was a market for this at the time!) The small amount of investment we put in through SRB resulted in significant new floorspace and an increase of jobs, plus the reduction of traffic from neighbouring residential roads. The site owners paid for all the work since they could see the financial benefit. Without the study, the site owners would have continued to under use their sites and keep them within bad neighbour type uses.

Water coolers & saving money

Here is an idea I was sent the other day from someone in a local authority:

We have a 'Bright Idea' scheme and one such idea was to replace all the water coolers with coolers plumbed directly into mains water.  This has meant no more large plastic bottles being delivered full and returned empty and also no more plastic cups as each member of  staff had already been given a glass.  This has worked out considerably cheaper and has also reduced our carbon footprint

What this blog is about

I am researching a compendium of innovative practice in the public services and I wonder if I might involve you in this.

In particular I am searching for examples of where a small but creative idea helped a service deliver more with less. Often these are the innovations that go unreported or only exchanged at conference coffee times, for example. I wish to create (and steadily grow) this searchable resource that will help spread these innovative practices widely. Indeed, hopefully, this blog compendium will inspire others to come up with even more and support the creative spirit in the public services - a spirit we need more than ever in these times.

Do you have such a story? In particular, I am looking for ‘bite sized’ ideas that

  • Have helped your organisation deliver more to your local communities, or work even more efficiently, or just saved some money or staff/officer time.
  • Could be applied elsewhere reasonably easily
  • Are probably not widely known outside of your own organisation

A few small examples I have come across are:

  • Police service fleet management operations constantly look for ways to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Two improvements stand out. In one instance, one fleet manager discovered that many different units were hiring cars for their use and in many cases not very efficiently, as the hire cars were often sitting idle in police station car parks . As a consequence, they centralised the booking of hire cars and saved a large amount of money. In another instance, a different fleet manager empowered his organisation to search for ways to improve the resale value of police cars once they were decommissioned. They managed to invent a new kind of adhesive which meant the ‘Battenberg’ fluorescent strips could be removed with very little damage to the paintwork.
  • One council regularly hosted social events in a large hall and one occasion some helium filled balloons escaped and drifted up to the high ceiling. Faced with the need to get the balloons down, the facilities manager was on the point of hiring some expensive scaffolding to grab the balloons. However one of the council’s cleaners had the ingenious idea to put some masking tape on another balloon – with a sticky edge facing outwards – and floated this balloon to the others on a long piece of string. One by one they were brought down at no cost.
  • In one council, they were seeking to improve the efficiency of their street lighting service. On analysis of the procedures involved, they established that if a member of the public phoned in to say that the street light outside their house was not working, the first step was to send an engineer out (at dusk?) to check that indeed the light was not working. On establishing that it was, a second engineer was despatched to fix it. They compared their own assumption (members of the public might lie) and the data (on almost no occasion did the first engineer find a working street light) and challenged the process. Now if someone rings in to report a defective street lamp, an engineer is sent to repair it, without the checking stage. Time and money have been saved and the public get a speedier response.

In both cases, the ratio of results achieved to effort expended is very high. I am looking for more examples like this. If you can spare a few minutes sending me such a story, and/or circulating this blog to colleagues inside or outside your organisation in order to snowball more ideas, I would be most grateful. I also think that colleagues around the country would find the resulting resource helpful too.

Below are some guideline questions – but please do not feel constrained by these – but this will help organise the information later. I have also added a couple of optional questions on learning and leadership – as they are my interests too. Please add that detail if you have the time. Also please be brief as this will help the keep the compendium usable.

1.       Summary title (of this ‘small & creative idea with big results’)?

2.       What was the idea and

3.       What were the results?

4.       How did your (or your colleagues’) leadership help this innovation come about?

5.       What was learnt?

6.       Contact details for further information or keep it anonymous if you wish

Thank you for at least reading to here! In anticipation, thank you for all your help with this research. I hope this blog will grow and grow!



Helping you connect the prose and the passion to deliver superlative results