A few kind words about procurement

The Three Stooges
Art. 5 ECHR. What not to do. Image via Wikipedia

This is a post about procurement, so let’s start by talking about human rights. There are many bits of idiocy in British political debate at the moment, but perhaps none so blankly stupid as the idea that human rights laws are bad because they allow judges to overrule the decisions of the government.

It’s a common argument, so it’s fortunate that computers don’t give you physical connexion to people, because I’m sure by now I would have snapped, reached through the screen and slapped someone around the head, in the manner of Moe from the Three Stooges, while screaming “that’s the point! that’s what they’re for!”. This would be an unconscionable violation of Art. 5 ECHR no matter how therapeutic it might be for me personally.

Here’s where procurement comes in: I think that many people in the social innovation/new models of government world would agree with me on human rights. Those same people might take an attitude to procurement rules that mirrors the HR-sceptics’.

This thought is prompted by two articles I’ve read today, the first on the Guardian and the second at Rewired State. I should say immediately that both are good articles, and this isn’t a criticism of them. They don’t get close to some of the crazed ravings of the anti-human-rights bloggers.

I worry, though, that we reformers echo the human rights sceptics when we talk of procurement as a bureaucratic obstacle that’s just pointlessly preventing us from doing the right thing. “If only they’d let us do what we know needs to be done”, we think, “and get out of the way”.

The problem is that – like the ECHR – procurement’s job is specifically to be in the way. Its rules exist because Government is a big old pot of money, extracted by taxation and the threat of prison, run by people who are usually but not always honest. Who wouldn’t want to have a pop at that?

We might know that our heart’s in the right place, and we just need the chance to try out our innovation, but “let these guys off because they’re trying something new” and “let these guys off because they’re trying something new (and the chief exec is my brother-in-law)” are hard to tell apart.

All of which is not to defend bad procurement practice, but we mustn’t let ourselves become captured by the (comforting, validating) victim mentality that pervades the fighters against the ECHR.

Procurement rules aren’t there to do us down, they’re there to ensure that as businesses and citizens we get a fair deal. We can campaign to change them, help to bring them up to date, and group our businesses for better bidding. But, for our own sake, we can’t start to think of them as the enemy.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

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