Good Practice
Sound Advice On Procuring Consultancy Services

We are pleased to welcome this post from Sheena Kocherhans, Category Manager for Professional Services at ESPO, the public sector owned buying organisation.

One of the many tragedies of the wholesale remodelling of UK public sector is that with unrelenting cuts in funding and headcount, the actual options for senior executives or project managers seeking first-class advice are often no clearer now than they were before the cuts were made. If anything they’re increasingly more complicated.

Many procurement teams no longer have the specialist resources to support other departments when procuring specialist services; often, generalists have to take over buying themselves. A metropolitan authority or an NHS trust has processes and protocols for sourcing help – but the same may not be true of a new free school or a district council struggling to serve a large region.

While public sector boards are accustomed to consultancies advising Government in specific markets such as construction, planning, waste, and environmental services, many such organisations are being forced to innovate. Some are looking at new service delivery models in order to keep services going, others will be tendering for professional or accountancy services to run major projects, and others may need to source specialist know-how in areas like health & social care in order to deliver new and innovative ways of providing services.

Who do public buyers partner with in these circumstances? Not only are there challenges for procurement teams in identifying the required scope and level of assistance, there is also the difficulty of identifying the right supplier from a raft of private, public and third sector consultancy partners available. Procuring consultancy services is complex especially if there is only a requirement every few years.

It’s often difficult for public buyers to work out who offers which services as consultancies define themselves and their capabilities very differently. In addition, the array of market niches that advisory companies cover make it difficult for buyers to size up their requirements without doing a lot of prior research. Achieving like-for-like comparisons of suppliers, to support a new type of public service partnership or a service delivered across a large territory or multiple locations, is almost impossible without public executives undertaking detailed initial research and time-consuming tender processes.

When public organisations do find a good consultant, they often stay with the supplier organisation to minimise the risk of finding someone new or to avoid lengthy new procurement processes. As a result, the contract may become less economically advantageous to the customer over time and some of the specialisms that exist within the wider market are not accessed.

Forward-looking professional buying organisations (PBOs) have monitored these different market trends and buyer sentiment for some years, and have found that the consultancy market is innately confusing and fragmented. PBOs wanted a way to ensure more focused and streamlined help for procurement teams and to help deliver excellent consultants across many sectors for public sector organisations – essentially a sort of ‘go to’ route for procuring complex consultancy services. As a result, ESPO, in partnership with YPO, has launched its largest-ever framework, which was assembled to ensure that anyone from a primary school to a large NHS body, or from central Government to a local authority can access consultancy services easily, quickly and compliantly.

Understanding such complexity was evident when ESPO received over 240 bids from consultancy suppliers wishing to join the framework. As part of its largest procurement process to date and to rapidly evaluate the bids submitted by such an array of providers, it brought together an in-house team of 12 procurement experts with specialised service knowledge from across the organisation and from YPO.

Reflecting a huge talent pool available, suppliers on the framework range from management consultancies to specialists in design, engineering and project management, infrastructure companies and niche design and consultancy businesses. The breadth and expertise offered through the framework ensures that buyers can identify and access world-class consultancy in any area, far more simply and quickly and in compliance with EU regulations, than ever before.

And it isn’t a case of domination by big consultancies either: ESPO values the unique contribution of mid-size and smaller businesses to assisting today’s changing public sector frameworks. As a long-standing signatory to the UK’s Small Business Charter – and a proven champion of expert and niche small consultancies – it’s very pleasing to see that 92 of the 135 suppliers on the new framework are SMEs.

To simplify procurement process, ESPO added new ‘lots’ or categories to the framework, such as strategic projects, IT and procurement consultancy services. In addition, customers can swiftly procure audit services. Most of the framework’s lots are direct award, providing a quick route to market, with the knowledge that any time-consuming ‘legwork’ on due diligence and EU compliance has been done in advance by our experts. We believe that this new framework will fulfil the ‘one stop shop’ role in the public sector consultancy services market that so many hard-pressed public managers have wished for.

Through careful customer and supplier research and data analysis, we have assembled a simpler and safer way for procurement teams and generalists alike to buy in consultancy and services – providing essential management capacity while keeping the lid on costs. More than that, we are helping demystify the advice and consultancy services available to our public bodies that have undergone so many funding cuts and so much change to their capacity in recent years.