The new procurement normal in the UK

I have kept myself quiet for some time as a way to simply observe the unfolding of the COVID crisis and the procurement answers to it. I think it is fair to say that 4-5 months in, we're firmly in the new normal and that implies some considerations.

A direct consequence of a new normal is that it is no longer defensible to say that we're in an urgent, unexpected situation for procurement purposes. We're not. The virus has been around since January and we have learned enough about it to be able to plan ahead and take decisions today for the forthcoming months. My view about March hasn't changed ie, the unforeseeable impact in procurement practice and the need to blatantly ignore rules to do purchases. But even for the defenders of such view, it is impossible to sustain today in July that a second wave in the winter is "unforeseeable" and any reaction, urgent and justified. We know the infection vectors, we know what type of care is needed and (mostly) how transmission occurs. Failure to prepare now is exactly that, a failure to act in good time.

Now, when there's some respite, is the time to get procurement sorted for a potential second wave. Not when it hits or it will be February-March again.

Having said that, I fear the 'practice' developed in the last few months will have a long term damage, at least in the UK. First, I think it has gone a lot further than simply a 'deactivation of rules' as posited by Albert a few months ago. Some procurers have been clamoring for more *ahem* flexibility and the last few months have been the gateway drug for a more 'flexible' approach to public procurement in the long run. It doesn't help that the Government seems very keen in pursuing that same (de)regulatory agenda while giving to those with good connections large valued contracts with little to no competition or scrutiny. Whereas until now the UK Government held the line in terms of procurement rules and practice, the Johnson Government has nothing but contempt for procurement rules and will push through a reform that will make do with them. Mark my words on this.

Of course, it will be dressed up as cutting red tape and enabling a more entrepreneurial spirit in public administration but the reality will be nothing of the sort. It will reward those with close connections to the key decision makers with contracts with limited or no oversight. As for the useful idiots enabling the process, I will not let the opportunity pass to say "I told you so" when you wash your hands from the mess a few years down the line.

What is really at stake here? A few weeks ago I was teaching my usual contract disputes module on the Belgrade University procurement masters' and as it could not be otherwise, I used plenty of examples of UK COVID-19 procurement practice as examples of what not to do and how poorly risks were being managed in the UK. It did not take long for the students (all procurement professionals) to say "Pedro, in our countries this would be classed as corruption or flagged as such." Good thing developed countries like the UK have no such thing as corruption, right? That is a problem for countries with weak governance structures like those in South East Europe, Africa or South America.

Well, if you believe in that I have a bridge to sell to you.