Charities minister: Help us avoid ‘bid candy’ situations in government contracts

The UK’s minister for civil society has acknowledged the social impact achieved through the government’s £49bn spending is not up to scratch.

“We’ve spent quite a lot of money already and I’m yet to meet someone who tells us that we do it brilliantly. So, like the school report: we could do better,” said Baroness Diana Barran this week.

The minister, who is responsible for charities, social enterprise and the government’s ‘inclusive economy unit’, was speaking to some 400 people from public and private sector organisations yesterday (Wednesday) at the National Social Value Conference in London, co-hosted by Social Value Portal and Social Value UK

Ensuring central government spending has a positive impact is one of three priorities she has picked up since taking on the brief in July 2019, alongside a focus on loneliness and youth.

The UK public sector is the biggest customer in the country – with central and local government plus ‘arms-length bodies’ together spending almost £300bn per year on buying goods and services.

Like the school report: we could do better

But efforts to embed social value considerations in contracting have been more successful so far at local government level. Figures from Tussell, which analyses public sector contracting data, show that local authorities are still better at awarding contracts to SMEs and voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations. Last financial year, local government bodies awarded £3.9bn to these groups – 16% of the total value of contracts they awarded – while the central government reached only 6% of its total contract value.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose party won a large majority in the December 2019 general election, has promised his government will “level up” the economy – bringing poorer regions up to the same level as the wealthier south-east. It is hoped that more social value considerations within procurement will help to achieve this.

READ: What does Boris Johnson's new government mean for UK social enterprise?

Barran said: “People have got a good reason to feel angry and left behind… How we commission and who we work with and how we work in communities can make a real difference to that.”

Two recent changes to the Social Value Act, first introduced in 2013, were “important steps forward”, she added: the fact that social value must now be explicitly evaluated, not just “considered”, plus the fact that central government contracts will cover goods and works as well as services. 

A response to last year’s public consultation on how to implement Westminster’s procurement ambitions has been delayed by several months. Barran said the response was expected “in due course – which is a technical government phrase”, but suggested momentum remained strong.

“I don’t want to skip over in one sentence the challenge of turning around central government procurement but… that's not something that’s done in a whisker. But there is a real focus on it and we will continue to press on with all energy.”

She also called for ideas and successful examples of VCSE organisations being engaged in a “constructive” way – and not being included in a consortium as “bid candy” or “just unable to compete”. 


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Laura Kekuti, senior policy officer at UnLtd, the UK foundation for social entrepreneurs, told Pioneers Post she welcomed the minister’s honesty about the challenges but said building consortia to bid for contracts was very time-consuming for small organisations. More services like those provided by Capacity: The Public Services Lab were needed, Kekuti said.

Government has focused too often on the bottom line

Terry Collins, CEO at Durham County Council – which won a Cabinet Office award for social value leadership in 2016 – said central government could do what many local authorities have done well by “having an open mind” and  “getting straight on leadership”.

“Government has focused too often on the bottom line, when actually what we should be doing is quantifying and communicating what the wider benefits are,” he said.