2nd July 2020

Procurement: crisis has shown there is another way

The success of the Nightingale Hospitals provides a new route map for policy makers.

Thanks to the Prime Minister's recently announced, 'New Deal', public procurement has generated plenty of column inches in the last few days. This, arguably, was inevitable: if the Prime Minister's 'Project Speed' is to live up to its name, and shovels are to start breaking ground soon, then cumbersome public procurement processes need to be reformed. 

Happily, the industry’s successful delivery of the Nightingale Hospitals, which quickly sprung up across the country, provide a route map for policy makers and clients.

When the scale of the Covid-19 outbreak became clear - and the strain on hospitals started to be felt - the Government briefly suspended standard procurement process. Competitive tender was replaced with direct awards to proven delivery partners; value for money was measured in lives saved and misery avoided, not the lowest tender input price.

The firms involved in the projects could quickly establish robust budgets, based on industry benchmarks, and commit to supply chain partners and get to work fast. Proven costs were made transparent and were fully recoverable. The upshot was that without a protracted procurement process, every project was delivered on time and without precontract wrangling or post contract dispute. Collaboration was the keynote of the crisis.

Of course, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Government can't simply waive the procurement process in its entirety: for one, it is still incumbent on officials to ensure value for money for taxpayers. But the Nightingale Hospitals do, nevertheless, demonstrate that the UK built environment industry, given the right conditions, can perform with staggering flexibility, collaboration and pace.

This is not solely of benefit to contractors. After all, curtailing the tender process can itself save taxpayers' money; competitive dialogue drains resources, with multiple consortia designing the same hospital three times over on one scheme, whilst other healthcare clients struggle for bidders and fret about industry bandwidth. But less money spent by producing costly bids means more of the client budget can be spent on the projects themselves or reinvested to spur forward innovation. And this is before we begin talking about the time and resources that could be freed up to streamline delivery and embed zero carbon and efficient modern methods into the design development process.

This is a positive lesson, not least of how unexpected challenges can drive innovative thinking and adaptation. What's more, the virus is momentarily in check, but the focus on healthcare projects will persist, not least because the Government has already committed to the biggest capital programme since the Blair / Brown era.

If we want to deliver these projects expeditiously, we must not forget the procurement lessons we've learned from the pandemic. Florence Nightingale shaped modern healthcare practice, her namesake hospitals could yet shape the future of procurement. That's if we learn the right lessons. 

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