Per year, around £12.6bn is spent in Scotland, £290bn across the UK, and approximately £1.3tn across the 48 countries the UK recently signed an agreement with. What am I talking about? Procurement of course!

Everyone’s favourite after (online) dinner topic. Well maybe not quite, but for many in the voluntary sector, from social care to employment, procurement is very important and I think we should all be talking about it.

The Scottish Government highlight the strides they are making in this area, and its potential to help tackle social and environmental challenges is getting more attention. Recent focus has been given to procurement with the independent review of adult social care, where other sector colleagues are championing reform, and it’s becoming a key part of wider discussions on life after lockdown.

Procurement is shaping up to be a key issue for 2021, and SCVO are committed to making sure that the voluntary sector is a key partner in those discussions.  The sector’s well-documented experiences of procurement have not always been positive, with impacts on organisations, services and communities, and its vital that we play our part.

The sharp-eyed procurement watchers amongst you – you know who you are – will have seen our recent response to the Scottish Parliament’s call for views on how the 2014 Procurement Act is holding up. Our message was clear: we need comprehensive reform. But to make this happen we need to think creatively and work collectively, building more positive partnerships between our sector and local and national government.

Our research with members in 2013 and 2019 suggests that the impact of poor procurement practice on voluntary organisations can be severe, with terms and conditions meaning that organisations are underfunded, having to draw on reserves or hand back contracts.  Redundancy notices are routinely served, only to see funding be received months later to renew the service, and many care workers, nearly all female, are on low wages with few guaranteed hours, because this is all that contract values allow for.

The continuance of one-year contracts has heightened the sense of competition over collaboration, pitching organisations against each other in a struggle for survival. This has driven down costs but at the expense of a person-centred service. This can prevent people receiving services from exercising meaningful choice and from having the time to build lasting relationships with the staff and organisations involved.

So how can we take this forward? Well, the picture is complicated, not helped by the funding pressures on local authorities and elsewhere over recent years. But that is precisely why we need collective working, to start imagining how a better system would work and how we can get there. Members tell us that current practices focus too much attention on outputs, and not the overall outcomes commissioning was designed for. Community Work Ireland recently produced an interesting report in which it called for the suspension/ removal of competitive tendering in some areas. So what would this and other ideas for change look like to you in practice?

How can we make sure charities are financially stable and workers are on good terms and conditions, at the same time as working within the confines of public sector finances? How can we do all this in a human rights-based approach, which puts the person receiving a service at the centre of decision making? With colleagues across the sector, local and national government, we will be working on these questions throughout the year and would very much welcome the chance to hear your thoughts on this. Please get in touch: allan.young@scvo.scot

And finally, though we focus largely on local and devolved government, procurement of course has a UK dimension, particularly important as the post-EU landscape is being coloured in. The UK Government has a consultation open until 10 March 10 on Transforming Public Procurement and we would be keen to hear of your involvement in this area.