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Last week, we held the kick-off meeting for the Public Spend Forum Best Practices Exchange in the UK. The Exchange has been a feature of the Public Spend Forum program in the USA for a year or more now, one of the elements of the PSF initiative launched by Raj Sharma and his team. Nancy Clinton and I are supporting their efforts in the UK and in time, perhaps more widely in Europe, and we extend our thanks to BravoSolution for their support in this initiative, a reflection of their commitment to improving public procurement performance.

Public Spend Forum has important (and challenging) aims. We have a goal to help public supply markets operate better, and to do that we want to help public sector buyers through various means, by building a global community and providing data, networking, education, skills development and research.

In the US, the Exchange has brought together a group of senior public sector procurement executives for face-to-face meetings (with a dial-in option) to discuss major issues and define a research agenda for Public Spend Forum to develop. That research is now well under way and outputs are being delivered, such as the report (developed in partnership with the Volcker Alliance name) on competencies required of government procurement staff.

So last week our aim was to start something similar in the UK. We invited about a dozen senior public sector executives to get together in London, with four objectives:

– Start the collaboration process, with a cross-sectoral focus

– Communicate the vision for the Exchange and update the group on US progress to date

– Make a start in terms of determining a research agenda, and generally to find out what the group believe the Exchange could contribute to them and to public procurement and public sector markets in the UK

– Spread some best practice in a particular area to kick-off the desired exchange of knowledge

One exciting point for us was that we got such a good spread of sectors represented in a small group. We welcomed people from central government (with much appreciated support from Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Service and Welsh Government); local government; health sector; universities; housing and the BBC.

Raj Sharma kicked off the session and told us more about the PSF vision, and emphasised that while this is a long-term programme, it could deliver practical benefits very quickly. He updated the group on progress in the US and some of the wider work there, including what Anne Rung from the White House has been doing in terms of procurement improvement.

We then got onto the heart of the afternoon – how can the PSF Exchange bring value to the UK situation? That led to a very participative dialogue.

There definitely seems to be enthusiasm that delegates and members will get value from the cross-sector approach. We know that there are excellent leaders and much good practice already in place in local and central government; in health, education, emergency services, and in many “other” public and semi-public organisations. (There has been some excellent work in organisations such as the BBC, Network Rail, and Transport for London, for instance.)

In other sectors such as Housing Associations procurement is perhaps less developed but that only highlights the potential. However, these different sectors rarely talk to each other. Last week certainly convinced us that there will be huge value in cross-fertilising and pollinating ideas, good practice, tools and skills around the sectors.

We also learnt that there are many different areas where research might have some value to procurement professionals – that’s not a surprise, but from our point of view it means we have to think carefully about where to focus our efforts initially. We think there should be some benefit in seeing where US research can be used or extended into the UK; the work on outcomes and metrics that is well developed in the US is one likely example.

But we will also start some UK-specific work as well; one hot topic that looks interesting is “collaboration” (in the sense of working together buy-side, not supplier collaboration). Whether it is local authorities developing shared services, health bodies such as the London Procurement Partnership, the CCS work, consortia in university sector, not to mention regional cross-sector potential, this feels like a very current issue where good practice is emerging but is not well documented. Another potential area seems to be contract and supplier management, which has significant room for improvement both in the US and in Europe.

So we will be reporting further on the Exchange, but one more important point. We started with a small group to make this manageable, but this is not intended to be overly “exclusive” and certainly will not be “cliquey!” The Exchange will continue to be aimed primarily at leadership-level procurement professionals, whilst other PSF initiatives (some coming soon) are broader in focus. But we will open up the Exchange to any leader who feels that they can contribute and will benefit from being part of the programme.

For instance, we will let you know as and when research starts and we would love to have as wide a possible group of contributors to that. We will publicise the meetings (probably quarterly) more widely and look to involve more people.

Finally, our thanks to those who participated last week. Such a talented, smart and engaged group – I know “passionate” has become an over-used word, but it is good to see how much public sector procurement leaders care about what they are doing, and how strongly they feel about making public procurement better. If PSF can help those and many others like them achieve their goals, then we’ll all be very happy, as will the UK taxpayer.

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