Blair's unrealistic e-procurement deadlines dropped

Government targets for shifting much of its £13bn annual procurement spend online have effectively been discarded by the Office...

Government targets for shifting much of its £13bn annual procurement spend online have effectively been discarded by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

Mike Simons

The targets, originally announced in the 1999 Modernising Government White Paper, were seen as central to Tony Blair's drive to get the UK online.

Jane Gibbs, director of e-commerce at the OGC, told a Computing Services and Software Association (CSSA) conference that the Government had reached 40% electronic procurement against a target of 90%.

"The targets were aspirational. They encouraged the Government to look at e-procurement solutions," said Gibbs. "The 90% was always a self-assessment target," she added, claiming that the targets were never going to be enforced by the OGC.

Less than three months ago, Brian Rigby, deputy chief executive of the OGC, publicly insisted that the departmental target for 90% of low-value transactions to be conducted by 2001 was intact.

With unusual candour, Gibbs declared that the target for e-procurement should not be the main focus. "I prefer to talk about efficiency," she said, explaining that much of the increase in e-procurement was through the use of the government procurement card, which is effectively a credit card.

This message went down better than expected with the audience at the CSSA's Are We Getting IT Right procurement conference, largely because Gibbs promised that while the Government would not be an early adopter of e-procurement systems, it would not be a laggard either.

Market models are constantly changing and the OGC has been unsure which market to bet on, said Gibbs. She then challenged suppliers to deliver more success stories and produce a fully integrated e-procurement system, including e-payment, which did not rely on electronic data interchange (EDI).

The rest of the conference was dominated by the need to get more traditional procurement processes right.

Opening the event, Peter Gershon, chief executive of the OGC, said the IT industry could learn from procurement and contract management techniques that the Government is introducing to the construction industry.

Gershon emphasised the importance of the Gateway Review process, introduced last year to monitor the progress of government projects. He said the causes of many high-profile government IT failures could have been identified "at the very early stage".

As it was, he said, "You could almost have booked the National Audit Office inquiries and Public Accounts Committee hearings five years down the line."

Law firm Masons' George Wheeler-Charmichael said many procurement problems had their roots in poor contract definition. This was often caused by political pressure to announce projects, with contracts being little more than an agreement to agree.

Helena Shovelton, chairwoman of the Audit Commission, and Michael Whitehouse from the National Audit Office said that too often government departments had emphasised initial contract price rather than value for money.

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The slipping deadline

1999: Modernising Government White Paper said 90% of government procurement should be electronic by March 2001

April 2000: Office of Government Commerce (OGC) launched, charged with shaving £1bn off Whitehall procurement bill within three years. Target changed to 90% of low-value procurement online by March 2001

June 2000: OGC froze plans for electronic shopping mall, citing technological uncertainty

November 2000: Andrew Smith, chief secretary to the Treasury, reiterated e-procurement targets

February 2001: OGC claimed 90% target was "always aspirational". It said government e-procurement has risen from 1% to 40% of spend, largely through use of credit cards.

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