Scotland's journey of achieving sustainable procurement outcomes 2002-2022: independent review

An independent review that looks back over the past twenty years of sustainable public procurement in Scotland and other parts of the UK. The findings showcase how the progressive approach to sustainable procurement in Scotland has achieved jobs, training and other positive outcomes.

Chapter 5: Barriers and Challenges to Achieving Sustainable Procurement Outcomes

Given the complexity and multi-layered nature of sustainable procurement, it is perhaps unsurprising that respondents highlighted a range of barriers and challenges to both the process and achieving outcomes, alongside some suggested solutions, which are outlined in this chapter.

Lack of consistency

There appears to be a delicate balance to be achieved between enabling flexibility and tailoring of approaches across public bodies, including integrated, consistent approaches that reduce duplication of effort. This was raised by many respondents in relation to a range of issues including tender evaluation, monitoring performance and impact, training, and establishing processes. Some respondents expressed a desire for a national approach to sustainable procurement, which could be incompatible with the ambition for public procurement to integrate place-based considerations. The scale of the challenge was recognised by many respondents who highlighted the complexity of the structures and range of organisations involved in delivering sustainable procurement outcomes. Suppliers suggested that greater consistency might allow for maximising opportunities, given that practice varied widely among public bodies, with it being suggested that some were unclear what to ask for.

"One of your largest challenges…is that the public sector in Scotland is not a single organisation…it's made up of lots of individual, independent legal entities. And sometimes that makes it really difficult to be consistent across the piece." (Other public body)

This indicates a need for increasing awareness of the importance of nuance and of individualised approaches to meet local need while simultaneously considering whether there are opportunities for the introduction of consistent/national approaches in particular areas.

Difficulties monitoring, measuring and evaluating tenders

A significant commonly experienced challenge was the process of managing, monitoring measuring and evaluating community benefits. While recognising the nuance and the need to tailor approaches to local need, many respondents did recommend some level of consistency and guidance in how benefits should be evaluated.

Monitoring benefits

A clear research finding is the challenge involved in ensuring sustainable procurement outcomes are properly considered and delivered via the contract management process. This is partly associated with procurement departments generally having less involvement in this stage, with another department assuming responsibility once the contract is awarded. The level of resource and expertise required to monitor the delivery and impact of such benefits appeared to be a particular challenge, given the wide-ranging, holistic definition of social impact.

To address this, a common suggestion was for better resourcing of procurement teams so that they have the capacity to be involved in the entire procurement (i.e., from project inception, through to tendering contract award and contract management). It was felt that this would yield consistency and generate demonstrable outcomes. A related recommendation would be ensuring a whole organisation approach to procurement to enable integration and pooled resources to ensure that procurement plays a role in delivering the wider local and national priorities. Good practice examples of this include local authority employability teams undertaking contract management for training and recruitment community benefit requirements.

"What is difficult around all of this is the contract monitoring…Because procurement is the facilitator, we can put things into the tenders and the contracts but when it comes to the actual monitoring, who is responsible? Because the services themselves will just say I want to get the service delivered." (Other public body)

Measuring benefits

The 'soft' nature of social and community benefits was said by some respondents to lead to subsequent difficulties in measuring and tracking impact. A further challenge was the reported lack of awareness and understanding in the perception of some respondents, of the definition of social impact within Scotland leading to underreporting. As a result, some organisations preferred monitoring numbers as a measure of impact, rather than capturing more qualitative outcomes. However, as mentioned previously in relation to monetisation, some respondents maintained that quantifying training and employment benefits such as number of apprentices or training places offered fails to capture the true impact of what an apprenticeship can mean to an individual or a family. Again, echoing a common research theme, while acknowledging the need for flexibility and tailoring of benefits to local need, many public bodies did express a preference for some level of consistency. This consistency, facilitated by training and guidance, would involve defining the process for identifying benefits that would offer maximum impact. This was particularly the case for the 'softer benefits' (i.e., those benefits less amenable to rigid quantitative evaluation).

"We're probably under reporting what we're doing because of the difficulty in getting people to interpret what we are defining as a community benefit, and then reporting it back to us…I think that's probably one of our key challenges." (Other public body)

Evaluating tenders

An area that caused concern for public body buyers was the procedure for scoring the quality and effectiveness of proposed benefits within a tender document. Specifically, some respondents had a lack of confidence in interpreting and measuring how these benefits better aligned with community need in one tender versus another. This led to concerns about how to score objectively, without being discriminatory. It was commonly suggested that training and guidance in this area would be beneficial, as would guidance or standardised methodology on measuring the proposed impact of particular tenders.

"A lot of training is still required for procurement staff on how we evaluate, and the methodology about how we compare apples with apples because…I always think it's a grey area…It's obviously got to be proportionate and relevant…If there was some help on how we score them, that would help buyers." (Government)

It was suggested that public bodies had to be more strategic and specific in how they outlined their social impact requirements from the contract. There was a concern by a few respondents that public bodies relied on the social impact deliverables from a contract to deliver on their strategic responsibilities but sometimes failed to explain fully the outcomes they want to see.

"There needs to be a strategic intent from the commissioning organisation as to what they want to achieve from leveraging their investment…I don't see enough of those objectives coming through in their requirement of the brief for a project." (Other public body)

Lack of resource and capability

A commonly experienced barrier to delivering sustainable procurement outcomes was a lack of procurement-related resource and capability within an organisation, an issue that has been exacerbated by austerity. This was thought to be the case across the board, with public bodies operating without Corporate Procurement Managers and SMEs lacking the capacity to consider and deliver social benefit.

Resourcing of procurement departments and in particular, the lack of resource for Community Benefit Officers was said by many to create a particular challenge. This role was described as a huge enabler that provided a clear focus and commitment to ensuring delivery of benefits through effective contract management. The perceived increased workload involved with managing the full range of sustainable outcomes was an associated challenge highlighted by some respondents.

"That has been a real erosion. Some of the councils that were maybe furthest ahead have lost their dedicated person. And partly, that's because it's been embedded. But usually, it's been because an individual [has] moved on, and then the post has either not been filled or been filled differently." (Other public body)

"The demands upon us every year, appear to be greater, and it takes us longer to do a good job and get the outcomes Scottish Government's wanting and our own organisation's wanting. We don't have enough time and we don't have enough resource." (Other public body)

Again, linked to resource, a few respondents highlighted other challenges including smaller procurement departments having more limited opportunities to maximise the impact of the procurement tools and available training. It was noted that another impact of the "shrinking of organisations" being the lack of space and time required for cross-organisational, strategic working that enables greater impact.

"Austerity…things that are central, like procurement tend not to be well resourced. So, some of the ability to collaborate, even within a council across common areas of activity are diminished, because there's insufficient resources to really strategically plan." (Wider stakeholder)

To summarise, there are significant concerns that resource restraints will impact the quality of both the procurement process and associated outcomes. One suggestion was increasing efficiency of resources through increased integration of process and strategy.

"If we're to deliver this...properly, we need more resource, or we need to use the resource that we've got more efficiently and effectively." (Other public body)

Recruitment difficulties

A significant challenge within local authorities is the recruitment of public procurement professionals. Some respondents reported long-standing open vacancies in their organisations leading to significant resource and skills gaps.

"Like every other local authority in Scotland, we can't recruit." (Other public body)

Despite the Scottish Government strategy for addressing this issue through their Procurement People of Tomorrow programme, some felt that significant challenges were said to still exist in this area. One suggestion was to extend the programme and employ a coordinated approach across a range of bodies and organisations in Scotland. The consistent approach and guidance to sustainable procurement in Scotland was thought by some to make working across different organisations easier.

"We need to be bringing new people into the profession and a coordinated response on that would be very helpful so that someone [comes] into the NHS…then get some time in a local authority, come into central government, spend some time in a university and really get to understand the full gambit of public procurement in Scotland." (Government)

Competing and changing priorities

A key perceived strength amongst almost all respondents of the sustainable procurement agenda in Scotland is the holistic definition encompassing economic, social and environmental aspects. This did however bring challenge in the view of some respondents, in terms of managing competing and evolving priorities, and multiple targets meaning resource is finely spread.

"It's great that it [procurement] goes into other areas…I think it's exactly what we should be doing…and it's really resulted in change. But it's also just more and more requirements…more and more reporting…it increases the ask to your contractors as well." (Other public body)

As community benefits had long been on the agenda and are embedded within procurement, in the view of some respondents, this had resulted in less focus and resource being directed towards this area (including the removal of the Community Benefits Champions Network) with concerns that outcomes may diminish as a result.

"We are…taking our eye off the ball with community benefits. There may be a belief that the social stuff is done, and everyone knows what they are doing with it so now we will move on to the next thing…I think that the danger is that you see a bit of an erosion of that…it's almost as if the focus has shifted…it maybe has weakened some of the impact." (Other public body)

Difficulties measuring environmental impact

Linked to the challenge of competing priorities was measuring environmental impact. Although the current research scope did not include environmental outcomes, this was highlighted as a significant upcoming challenge by some respondents, specifically in terms of measuring carbon emissions and monitoring outcomes through the contract management process. Those who mentioned this issue suggested it to be essential that the Scottish Government provide guidance and support in this area.

"This is where I feel…that procurement is creaking…it's maybe just one ask too many, probably linked to the point that we don't really understand climate and carbon…I think on top of COVID, and cuts, and all the other pressures that procurement people will say they're under and we know they are, then climate is maybe in danger of looking like the straw that's going to break the camel's back. And that's why public bodies and…local authorities in particular are going to need a lot of help with this." (Wider stakeholder)

A few respondents suggested that closer partnership working between public bodies and suppliers should be encouraged to find a solution, echoing a common theme in the research of innovation and agility being important enablers for the delivery of social impact and community benefits.

"On the innovation front, setting ourselves big challenges…but recognising that the solution is going to be delivered by the marketplace, and having a conversation with that marketplace about what can be done, what the future can look like if they deploy their resources and their expertise…Public procurement can't do this without the market…they have the innovation, they have the expertise, they have the technology…There are a lot of smart people out there who could do a lot more than we're asking them to do, because we just haven't articulated the ask in the way that we should be." (Wider stakeholder)



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