All too often the procurement processes adopted by public sector agencies gets into trouble when the products and services being purchased are not standard or require multiple layers of innovation. Large scale procurement strategies that work well for paper clips or printing paper, or even photocopiers and office furniture, sadly don’t work well when applied to matters that are hard to quantify or complex in their implementation. Far too often the procurement process which quite reasonably needs to be dealt with in an open and transparent manner leads to a damaging commodification of the requirements and in that process the creative processes are terminated simply because of the need to compare apples with apples in a clinical manner. The company I work for has recently been involved in a contract to supply a solution for a public sector body. Although it was a minute part of the overall requirement, its need to meet well recognised standards and also to be a practical and effective for those using it led to many iterations beyond the initial request to tender. Tragically until the end of the process, following a lot of behind the scenes networking in order to speak to the end client, our professional recommendations were constantly frustrated. Our contract was delivered via a sub contractor of the main contractor on the project. We were a tiny element of the sub contractors requirements and theirs was only part of the main contractors requirements. Every time we asked to speak to the client it was seen as unnecessary by one or all three parties. Finally we found a way through and after several attempts to explain why our recommended solution would deliver what the client wanted, the light finally dawned and we were given the go ahead. However that was long after the design and our own procurement should have taken place. Most of the profit for the task will be lost in the many unnecessary phone calls and emails to get a meaningful discussion started.
While we cannot claim to have been dealing with anything as important as the sound insulation or engine design of a Type 45 destroyer as featured in this Sunday Telegraph article, I suspect the reasons that lie behind the mistakes made in these £1Bn vessels will have been similar. Designing warships is something that companies in that business should have done before or else why were they picked for the task? Defining the ‘bleeding obvious’ that when the ship is in motion, that the need for very external low sound output should have been high on the MOD’s agenda! After all if the ship cannot get within 100 miles of the submarine fleet it is trying to destroy, its submarine weapons will never be put to use. The same must be the case for the Ajax tanks that will not fit into any of the RAF transport aircraft. Tanks cannot be relied upon to get to the battlefield under their own steam (or diesel). My observation is that far too few public sector agencies have the confidence to appoint suppliers in a manner that then allows for an open and frank discussion on the strength and weakness of the requirements they themselves have set out. Mistakes will always be made and sometimes they will be catastrophic for the users or very expensive to fix. On other occasions they will simply make the people in the supply chain feel they are dealing with an incompetent purchaser. Retrofitting silencers for warships will be a great deal more expensive than designing them in, in the first place. You and I get to pay for that redesign and the original build. Someone should be demanding better results from our public sector. However spending more at the outset can look like a costly luxury to those counting the beans. However right now that is clearly a luxury that was badly needed.