• C. Peters

Public Procurement for Public Good: An Atlanta 1996 moment

C. Peters

It is a roar I will never forget. I was one of eighty thousand, screaming on, willing on the red, white and blue blur of David Weir. It is a roar Weir said he would never forget; a boy from South London who cried every night despairing that he was disabled, a teen in Atlanta 1996 on the verge of walking away from a sport he thought had no future because there was nobody in the stands, to claim his fourth gold of the games in front of the thousands screaming and the millions watching London 2012. When Weir was unable to win gold in Rio 2016, Team GB still won 64 – more than sporting superpowers Team USA and Team Australia combined – finishing second in the medal table for the fourth time in five Paralympics. In 2018 – the year furthest from and to the Olympic/Paralympic roar – three in ten young people named Paralympians as the most inspirational athletes, two in ten named Olympians, just one in ten named footballers the year England reached the World Cup semi-finals.

The foundation of that success; effectively a ‘payment by results’ procurement model for UK Sport. That procurement model was itself inspired by failure, leading to a complete transformation of sport funding after Atlanta 1996 when the Olympic team won a measly single Gold medal. Twenty years later, Team GB finished second in both Olympic and Paralympic medal tables and sport participation has doubled. The ‘payment by results’ funding model for UK Sport is not without controversy, with disapproval of the “win at all costs” culture that has stalked gymnastics and cycling in particular, but there is no doubting its transformative impact.

Yet whilst sport funding has been criticised for its obsession with outputs, measured in medals and trophies, the public debate on public services is the complete reverse. “More money for the NHS”, “increase cash for schools”, “invest in social care”; there is no sophisticated discussion about what outputs we expect from public service spending even as inputs tend to go up year on year (albeit marginally, and local authority spend has not been so lucky). This obsession with spending above outcomes has permeated procurement practices, where press releasing the project and cost is the goal – with the outcome a distant secondary goal. We know that value for money has long been 60% of the consideration for commissioners, which has contributed to the bottoming out of provider markets across public services. When outcomes are so overlooked, it is equivalent to our sporting goal being to increase the number of competitors in one or two high profile sports without minding whether any of them ever win.

Procurement practices have been under the spotlight since the collapse of Carillion, with criticism abounding of the “price before quality” approach that has led to the market dominance of a handful of large but overstretched outsourcing firms; charities and innovative providers are left fighting over the scraps. Imagine if UK Sport only funded rowing and athletics, leaving cycling, swimming and the rest to fend for themselves. UK Sport spent only £86.5m on elite sport every year in the run up to Rio 2016, compared to the £1.1 billion the public sector spent on management consultants in a single year in 2015 – theoretically procured to make the public sector more effective. If there were an equivalent “payment by results” model for consultants, it may have prevented their costs reaching a record high in 2020 with just a few controversial headlines to show for it.

The pandemic has exposed the frail cracks in our public services; education and health outcomes had been improving over the last decade, but far too slowly when compared against other European nations who spend less but get as good or better outcomes. Meanwhile, low welfare spend has been dependent on a buoyant labour market that itself was afflicted by low paid, low quality and insecure work. A generation of young people have had their opportunities distorted and the disabled and disadvantaged have suffered more than any from the health and economic consequences of this crisis.

The failures exposed by the pandemic should be the Atlanta 1996 moment for public sector procurement. It should be the moment to put the £290 billion procured by the UK public sector every year to focus on the public good. What if we took the same approach to prioritising improving the life chances of those in challenging circumstances, to make hundreds of thousands of inspiring local heroes in life, as we have in sport? Where could we be in twenty years if we applied this spirit to public procurement for the public good?

In its green paper on for public procurement reform, the Government set out five principles that should shift public sector procurement away from the price first approach that has been the dominate model for decades. The most import of those principles is: “Procurement should support the delivery of national priorities including economic, social, ethical, environmental and public safety”. The Social Value Act 2012 was the start of this focus but did not shift the dial, not least because social value has never been adequately defined. This risk may too afflict this goal, with “national priorities” unclear or defined.

There are five things we can learn from UK Sport that we should push as principles for public procurement for public good – and crucially it must influence the national priorities to do so. Those five priorities should be:

  1. Define public good and what success means, and push government to define national priorities on that basis. In sport, success was defined both by medal accumulation and by increased participation in sport by the population at large. National priorities remain too vague to determine what success should be.

  2. Relentlessly pursue good public outcomes, and ensure any success serves as inspiration for others to achieve the same. In sport the goal was gold, with today’s medallists inspired by yesterday’s. Public services should adopt success metrics based on improving outcomes for people with complex needs and challenging life circumstances, but also ensure success is celebrated and shared to light the way for others to follow.

  3. Ensure that the focus is on longer term impacts and what works, and value for money does not meant lowest value services. UK Sport did not fund the sports with the lowest entry costs or that could accommodate the highest number of participants; it funded the best equipment and coaches to achieve marginal gains on route to success. In public service, we should demand public sector funds the services that don’t just arrest a problem for the short term but address it over the long term.

  4. Expand the pool of participants to ensure the future does not live in the past, do not expect yesterday’s success to be tomorrow’s. David Weir did not deliver in Rio 2016 but it was still Team GB’s most successful ever games because talent had been picked out and groomed from years before even Beijing 2008. Big private public service providers have dominated market share by capitalising on procurers’ prioritisation of yesterday’s bottom line, compromising today’s competition and weakening tomorrow’s services.

  5. Reward winners whilst tolerating failure, and learn from both. UK Sport did not only fund the sports that provided medals, but also those that showed promise; a single gymnastics bronze in Beijing bloomed into five medals by Rio, two gold, whilst Britain’s gold-shy swimmers in London were prolific in Tokyo. In public services we should pay for results, whilst trialling innovative practices that may end in error but we can also learn from.

It is the right of every person in the United Kingdom to live a decent and dignified life through good employment; if this goal was measured in medals against its international peers then Team GB would be languishing mid-way through the developed world’s medal table. If the UK can transform itself in twenty years from a middling nation to a sporting superpower, in twenty years it should match the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany in its high employment, high wage, high welfare, high wellbeing economy. The government need to ensure pandemic failures are fixed through public procurement for the public good that allows us to celebrate an everyday Olympic heroism with good jobs for those from the most challenging of circumstances.

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