Lots of public bodies at national, regional and local level like to talk about community empowerment don’t they? That’s because promoting community empowerment is perhaps the holy grail of participatory democracy. Many politicians and policy makers believe that getting communities more involved in what public money should be spent on and more importantly why will lead to improved outcomes for people and their communities and there’s plenty of evidence to back this up.
For procurement, tasked with delivering more for less, increasing community empowerment could also mean that the ever-decreasing pot of cash available to spend on public services could actually be deployed in a much more effective way.
So what we can we do in procurement? How could we promote community empowerment and what benefits could that bring? When I was searching Google for examples, strange connections started to occur. Wherever I found a good example of procurement and community engagement, great football, or soccer to those of you on the other side of the pond, was also evident too. You don’t believe me? Well read on…
Let’s start in the home of sexy football, Brazil. Now they’ve been doing a thing called Participatory Budgeting there for a number of years and it’s a great way to do community empowerment at the front end of the procurement process. Participatory Budgeting in Brazil is an approach which gives local people a direct say in how, and where, public funds can be used to address local requirements.
It started in a place called Porto Alegre in southern Brazil over a decade ago. The first phase of participatory budgeting, was to get people together to prioritise how money should be spent, where investment should go. Should it be parks or water supply or schools or roads? People at the grass roots of the community were asked to come together in neighbourhood assemblies and make those decisions.
As the process matured people were able to take decisions at an increasing lower level. So from choices between thematic areas… to choices between services within a theme… to choices about what the specification for that service should be.
So people at the front end determining priorities. Something perhaps we already get involved in from a procurement point of view through User Intelligence Groups particularly when we have service users involved in that process.
Ok, so what they’ve done in Brazil is a start but how could we shift control even more directly to people’s hands and empower communities through procurement?
To have a look at how this might be done I moved on to another football hotspot Spain and in zoomed in on a city which features on a daily basis in my house and probably every household that has football crazy kids in their midst. Now they’re having a great season aren’t they, but the real reason why Barcelona is a great place isn’t the sublime football of Messrs Neymar, Messi and Suarez.
It’s their approach to procurement using open problems that was the real wow factor for me. What they’ve done is, instead of coming up with a specification for a service, they’ve specified the problem and then gone to the market and asked suppliers to solve it. They asked people from geographic communities or communities of interest to identify what needs they have and then turned it over to the world’s entrepreneurs to solve them.
Barcelona’s approach was successful. They had 50,000 views of their contract notices and ultimately let six contracts in this way for issues ranging from tackling bike theft to systems to tackle social isolation to empowering local retailers using technology. The thing to understand here is that communities don’t always know the answer to what they need at the outset – they just know they have a problem. This method of empowering them to say what they want to change and then enabling them to choose what the answer should be from a range of options, some of which they might not even have considered, is very powerful and procurement is right at the heart of it.
But is it just in big cities and the regions where these community empowerment approaches might work? Could we use them in remote and rural locations?
My final destination is in one of the great footballing heartlands, well we like to think so anyway, Scotland and my own organisation in the Outer Hebrides.
We wanted to improve community empowerment and link it to a procurement process and so we gave a combination of Brazil and Barcelona a try. We used a bus service contract but flipped the requirement on its head so we went out to the market to seek travel solutions for people without cars – the problem we sought to solve. We engaged with the community to identify needs, drive specification development and score the tenders. So we embedded community engagement the length and breadth of the procurement process.
To make this happen we assembled our squad of players. The Transport Team in defence yearning to retain the old ways of doing things, community workers in midfield being creative with their consultation techniques, corporate policy playing in goal making sure we didn’t make any strategic blunders and finally our strike force, the procurement team, taking all the needs, creativity and service requirements and converting this into the winning goal by putting a great procurement process and contract in place.
With a 5% budget saving delivered over the lifetime of the contract we clinched the trophy with no need for extra time.
Footballing metaphors aside, promoting community empowerment as part of the way we do things gives those of us in public procurement a real opportunity to shine.
It’s a chance to showcase our talent – getting the right people to have the right input into the procurement process at the right time.
It’s a chance for us to stretch ourselves and learn new techniques to work with different types of people using different engagement techniques at different points in the procurement process.
And it’s the chance to deliver more for less, to provide real answers to the challenges of austerity and to score that winning goal!