Going public

The Sustainable Procurement Task Force has recently delivered its action plan to government. Here, it's chair, Sir Neville Simms, discusses his ideas for mainstreaming sustainable procurement

Services, products, resources, staff; the public purse is always being opened by someone, for something, with public spend totalling around £150B, according to National Accounts analysis. But this spending power can be used for something more, to deliver something of greater value for us all.

On June 12, the Sustainable Procurement Task Force launched its recommendations to the government in the form of a National Action Plan: Procuring the Future. Our plan is the result of a year’s work and presents government with a strategy to make the UK a leading force in sustainable procurement in Europe by 2009.

This target was originally set out in the government’s Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future, in March 2005. It recognised the importance of developing a more sustainable way of living, in order not to compromise the lives of future generations.

Sustainable procurement is an important part of this and can play a significant role in realising the goals the government has set itself.

Sustainable procurement is about using strategic purchasing practices to support wider social, economic and environmental objectives, and is something that is already benefiting the progressive parts of the private sector. These forward thinkers recognise the value of working in this way, whether the impetus has come from inside the organisation or consumer pressure. Sustainability is something that we are coming to expect from our big business. But the private sector, and the country as a whole, expects to see the public sector doing it too.

In order to achieve the ambitious targets set out by the Sustainable Development Strategy, including positioning the UK as a sustainable procurement leader, I was asked to set up an independent, business-led task force able to deliver a National Action Plan. The group’s diverse, cross-sector membership included major suppliers, trade unions, professional bodies and major public sector procurers, as well as the Sustainable Development Commission. Among the number were chief procurement officer and CSR Champion from BT. We commissioned research, benchmarked the UK against other countries, identified examples of best practice and engaged in dialogue with suppliers to the public sector, to identify what stood in the way of delivering sustainable procurement.

The recommendations that grew out of this work are a formula for success, but

delivering results will require a real effort to entrench sustainable procurement in the mainstream. It needs a concerted, systematic commitment from the top down, throughout central and local government and across all public sector organisations, so that we are all working together to the same ends.

To ensure commitment to the agenda, the first of our recommendations is for

government to recognise its role and lead by example. All too often, its systems and processes simply don’t reflect its own policies. The public sector has around six million employees; each year, it spends over £3B on food, £4.5B on waste treatment and disposal, and uses 7,000GWh of energy. We are in a unique position to harness the purchasing power of the government. Spending power of this kind can, and must, have a massive impact and make real progress towards the government’s own goals. Practising what we preach should be our first priority. Lack of leadership has been identified over and over again as a major barrier to sustainability. Part of this, then, is developing clear, consistent and committed leadership that will translate sustainability policy into direct actions. This then needs to be monitored, with successes rewarded and failure to commit challenged.

Part of this leadership involves government setting clear priorities, the second of our recommendations. A coherent and tailored approach is needed, in the form of a single integrated framework, not a raft of conflicting guidance. Thirdly, government must be committed to raising the bar – minimum standards must be strengthened and mandated across the public sector, and goods and services that don’t meet these should be phased out by 2009.

Further long-term goals should be set in the sectors identified for priority spending, including construction, energy, food, furniture, health and social work, office machinery, pulp and paper, textiles, transport and waste. It is hoped that this will improve the performance as well as signalling future trends.

In turn, the public sector must make sure it is capable of delivering sustainable procurement by building capacity. Procurement must be carried out professionally and by dedicated, appropriately trained staff. To guide this, the task force has produced a flexible framework that sets out levels of compliance, against which organisations can assess their capability. The task force also calls for

all public sector organisations with an annual spend over £1B to appoint a commercial director to the board by April 2007.

Our fifth recommendation highlights the need to remove the existing barriers to sustainable development, such as upfront affordability issues. This also includes making clear to purchasers that the efficiency agenda and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive but can, and must, work together in order to achieve real value for money.

Finally, we urge the public sector to make the most of existing and future opportunities by engaging closely with its markets, looking at what SMEs, social enterprises and the third sector can offer, and by actively encouraging innovation.

Each of these recommendations must be underpinned by the building blocks we have identified, if the UK is to reap the benefits of truly sustainable procurement.

The flexible framework we have proposed will guide the public sector’s progress and act as an assessment tool for performance, and we have developed a methodology for prioritising public sector spend of around £150B.

The task force has also emphasised the need for a procurement delivery team, responsible for professionalising the process, providing the necessary tools and support to help public sector procurers perform.

We have now got something that, I hope, will convince and inspire the policymaker and show the person at the sharp end how to do it.

Concluding on a year’s hard work is surprisingly simple: we can, and must, practise sustainable procurement. The opportunity is there, waiting to be seized but we must act quickly to take advantage of the significant benefits that are to be had in the short, medium and long term. Delivering sustainable procurement is key to generating social and environmental change but it also delivers economic value for the public purse – anything less means the taxpayer and the future citizen are both being short-changed.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie