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Sustainable spending – how everyone can play a role in achieving real “value” for money

The UK’s public sector spends billions of pounds each year buying goods and services. In the past, public purchasing focused on getting “value for money” by awarding contracts to the lowest cost bidder. However, since the introduction of the Social Value Act in 2013, policymakers expect public spending to be used more strategically and have wider impacts on the environment and local economy. So instead of just looking at price, public bodies need to consider what additional impacts they can achieve with their spending through “sustainable procurement” balancing the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and price.

Typically, these choices are thought of as the responsibility of procurement teams. However, Nesta’s work on the Infuse programme has revealed that sustainable procurement isn’t something that can be achieved by procurement professionals alone. Infuse is an innovation programme designed to build skills and capacity for innovative public services across the Cardiff Capital Region to create ambitious change.

As part of the programme we have engaged with procurement teams and learned, while many procurement professionals are on board with a more sustainable approach, they need buy-in from the whole organisation for it to work effectively. Everyone in an organisation needs to understand the agenda and where they can help.

So, how can we shift the way the public sector procures goods and services? The key to success is in planning and preparation. Allow time to engage with the market, get an understanding of what already exists and explore and test the opportunities to benefit the local economy and environment.

Through minor adjustments in recruitment and supply-chain procedures, organisations can improve social value by providing good employment opportunities for local people, cutting down travel-to-work times and creating a strong bond with local communities. Furthermore, by strategically linking what is bought within and across organisations, we can realise significant shared benefits and improve local economic growth in an area.

These kinds of changes take time and resources and cannot be done by procurement professionals alone. Therefore, sustainable procurement requires a collaborative approach – harnessing all the skills and knowledge across the public sector, to really maximise the impact of public spending.

For example, we have been working with economic development teams as part of Infuse. They realised that many local businesses had negative experiences of tendering with public bodies in the past, and so have disengaged from the tendering process. The economic development teams are now working alongside their procurement teams and planning events to rebuild the relationships as well as support and encourage local businesses to access council contracts.

But this agenda is not just limited to economic development. There is also the potential for anyone working with communities to ensure social value clauses are aligned to community priorities and that construction projects have community support. Employment and skills teams can identify opportunities for disengaged groups to be included in construction projects, highlight skills or training that could be included in tenders and work with successful contractors to ensure local people access the opportunities.

Environment and sustainability officers can also help identify sustainable products, materials and solutions for purchases and consider and monitor the type of decarbonisation measures that could be included in tenders. So the opportunity to add value is everywhere and everyone should consider how they could play a part.

The important thing to remember is that the greatest impact comes when we don’t just think about what we buy, but also how we buy. This is something that everyone can do and is all about early engagement and building relationships. How can we know what types of products, goods and services are available if we don’t explore the market? How could we find out the types of social and environmental considerations the market can realistically achieve, if we don’t speak to providers and understand what might be possible?

Once the additional impacts have been identified, we also need to consider who will be responsible for monitoring those additional criteria and ensuring those stipulations are met. Is monitoring something an existing role can do or do we need to bring in other officers in the organisation with different expertise? If, for example, we’ve put in measures of lowering emissions do we have a baseline measure or will we need an environmental expert to help demonstrate the impact? If we’re asking for additional apprenticeships or additional training, how will those be reported and what happens if the criteria aren’t being met?

Monitoring is an area where many sustainable procurement practices fall down, as even the best preparation in the world can amount to nothing if there is no way to monitor implementation.

So it’s really important not just to think about items or tender specifications as the only tools for adding value. Early engagement with the market and building relationships to explore the possibilities can result in much greater impact. Having resources in place to measure those impacts and ensure that additional value is being achieved is critical. These are roles that everyone can play and it cannot simply be the responsibility of procurement teams to ensure sustainable procurement practices.

If this practice is adopted effectively, the public sector could lead the way in achieving real ‘value’ for money, and if the private sector follows, then the impact on the environment, people and places could be huge.

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Nesta Cymru


Emyr Williams

Emyr Williams

Emyr Williams

Programme Manager, Infuse (Y Lab)

Emyr was the programme manager for the procurement element of the Infuse programme.

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