When I first started my career, I worked for a specialist hospital that was part of a group of more than 20. My job role was in materials handling and procurement and my biggest responsibility was to actively understand the detailed and very specialist needs of my constituents.
Today, I am the chief executive of a software company supplying electronic patient records to healthcare organisations. As a supplier to the health community, like many others in my position, I want open and fair procurements that result in the best possible solution and agreement for the buyer.
I want to win a contract just as much as I want to make sure that I do not waste significant resource on potentially contracting to supply a system that we are not suitable to provide. It is in all our interests that the solutions are delivered successfully and procurement is a vital first stage in achieving that.
However, in order to achieve a successful procurement, I absolutely advocate professional guidance. As well as private consultants helping with these procurements, I have long said that an agency or team that is part of the government and consists of experienced and qualified individuals should be deployed to assist.
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The National Programme for IT in the NHS, which was set up to procure core systems centrally, has led to a serious lack of procurements over the past decade. Inevitably, this means that expertise in this area has dwindled across the country.
Most NHS professionals may be involved in one, possibly two, big procurements in their entire career. Many of those who have never had the opportunity will be confused by the process and legalities.
Therefore, it is essential that they receive the professional support to enable them to make the correct decision, particularly when it is the taxpayer’s money and potentially the patient who could be affected by the outcome.
In almost every other industry, it is crucial for those involved in a procurement process to be suitably qualified to make such important decisions.
The skill and knowledge needed for procurements should not be underestimated; it takes seven years of study to receive the professional qualification provided by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply. Yet these qualifications within the NHS are virtually non-existent.
While working at the aforementioned group of hospitals, we employed experienced buying and selling consultants to gain the maximum knowledge. In addition, we added specialism to our team of buyers.
For example, my hospital specialised in paediatrics and obstetrics, so we used our knowledge to negotiate on national contracts for the group in these particular areas.
That way, we coupled experience of generalist procurement with specialist procurement, which made for a formidable team that could complement each other and deliver great results, not just for our organisation but for the supplying community too.
Ultimately, our suppliers valued the professionalism of the process and the contract terms and relationship that subsequently resulted.
Look for the X factor
The government could provide more support to procurements. But even if it doesn’t, there are some big considerations I would urge all organisations to take note of.
If you have to use an OJEU process, use it as a base requirement, not the only process. Add to it; make the buying criteria match your individual needs.
I advocate something called the ‘Simon Cowell factor’. If you are drawing up your shortlists, and you are aiming for a specific number of suppliers, but for some reason you feel there is another supplier that has something about them you really feel is worth exploring, count them in.
Take the chance and give them the opportunity. This not only puts companies big and small on a level playing field but can help to open your eyes to what jems of innovation are really out there.
Some suppliers are really guilty of just answering the questions asked of them; neither the OJEU process nor suppliers are great at allowing additional information that might be of great value.
My advice is: don’t ignore good, honest, helpful guidance, which is different to sales messages and spin. You might not have a scoring mechanism for it, but if its valuable you should find a way include it somehow.
Don’t settle for something that isn’t working
The chance to step-change your infrastructure is a unique opportunity and a privileged responsibility. Ensure your organisation is open and ready for change - and I don’t just mean the change of switching to a new computer system, I mean the business and process change that comes with it.
Test the suppliers to see if you can work with them. Learn from your early interactions about the possibilities of the technology you seek for the next ten years or more.
After all, they are the experts at what they do; good ones will happily share their views with you and work to combine your understanding of what’s possible with what you need and who you can work with.
As a customer once said to me: “We are going to be in bed together for a long time, we had better get comfortable.”
In summary, as responsible guardians of taxpayers’ money, combining overall suitability to meet your stakeholders needs, while ensuring you get the best price and are able to work in partnership with your supplier, is key to delivering the best possible service.
One final thing, if the procurement isn’t going the way you hoped or the solutions aren’t good enough, there is something wrong - and you have the power to change the process!
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