Spend Matters

By Peter Smith

April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher, who died today, was the United Kingdom’s most important politician of the last 50 years. She will be remembered for both her domestic leadership, as she turned round what seemed like a country in inexorable decline through the 1970s, and her role in foreign policy, from the Falklands to supporting Reagan in the “defeat” of the USSR.

But she can also take some credit as one of the key founding fathers (mothers?) of professional public sector procurement. Under her period of office as Prime Minister, 1979 – 90, we saw major advances in procurement throughout the public sector.  As David Smith, Commercial Director at the Department of Work and Pensions, CIPS President last year and someone who was one of the pioneers of public procurement himself, said to us today:

“She was really the first Prime Minister in the UK to take seriously the whole concept that government spending needed to be efficient and effective. She instigated the first government procurement review in 1984, which really led to the Treasury Central Unit on Procurement being formed, more senior procurement staff in departments, and eventually OGC, ERG and all the focus we’ve seen since on public sector procurement”.

She also led the drive to involve the private sector more in the delivery of government services. Now, just like the more divisive side of her achievements on the economic front (miners’ strike et al), you might look either positively or negatively at “compulsory competitive tendering” and “market testing” as the beginning of the whole outsourcing boom and greater private sector involvement in public services.

But if you remember the days of the local authority works’ departments, and their total lack of any customer or VFM focus (and often a dollop of corruption to go alongside that), then it’s hard to argue against her view that competition and procurement had to be taken more seriously if the taxpayer was to receive value for money for an ever-increasing investment.

And as well as being arguably the inventor of public sector outsourcing, it was under her leadership that the first serious Procurement Directors started appearing in government departments. I did my stint as a government CPO not long after she’d moved on, but her influence was still clear in the approach of Ministers like  Peter Lilley and Michael Heseltine, with their support for further innovative procurement initiatives around outsourcing and PFI for instance.

As David Smith said today,

“Whatever you think of her politics, she was a friend of the profession, and a genuine pioneer in understanding the importance of the role in the public sector. Many of the things we take for granted now in public procurement started because of her”.

RIP Baroness Thatcher.