Centralised public sector procurement processes may be the only answer to “systemic weaknesses”, MPs have said.

A report from the public administration select committee (PASC) says that there are “clear shortcomings” in the competence of department officials when it comes to running and managing contracts. Although PASC does support existing moves to improve the commercial skills of civil servants, many of whom have little private sector experience, it claims that a more wholesale cultural shift needs to occur.

Government procurement takes 50 per cent longer in the UK than in France or Germany, the report says, but the Cabinet Office does not seem to know why this is so.

Although there are more than 60 procurement professionals currently walking the corridors of Whitehall, the MPs add, very little is known about their skills, experience or even their fundamental knowledge of the sector in which they work. Indeed, the Cabinet Office has no knowledge of the experience held by 17 of these staff.

Even though the government is moving to centralise procurement processes, the report adds, progress has been “painfully slow and sporadic”, meaning that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“Only a coherent strategic plan, setting out clear objectives and how they are to be achieved, backed by united leadership across the top of government, can achieve the necessary change,” says Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP and PACS chairman.

The report comes hot on the heels of research by the Institute for Government (IfG) which calls on Whitehall to slow down its plans to expand markets within public services. Senior civil servants lack the skills and experience to design and manage complex contracts, IfG says. In particular, they are often reluctant to get rid of poor-performing suppliers or deal with funding imbalances, the research finds, while contracts can be easily manipulated by suppliers.

Public sector markets are now worth as much as £100 billion, according to IfG, which is also calling for contracts to include clauses allowing early termination if a supplier is not up to scratch. Competition impact assessments should be conducted for any outsourcing programme worth more than £100 million per year, it argued.

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