The Paralympics and public procurement for the public good

By Patrick Thomson | 06 September 2021

The legacy of 2012

One year late and without the crowds, I’ve been gripped by the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo and excited to see the launch of ‘We The 15’ a new global campaign to raise visibility, inclusion, and accessibility for disabled people who make up 15% of the world’s population.  

While it is sad to see empty seats in the arenas, it brings back many proud memories of successfully delivering the 2012 Games in London.

Behind the spectacle and the sporting achievements 2012 was a good example of the power that public procurement can unlock.

I was part of the Last Mile operations at London 2012 – helping 14.5 million people get safely to and from the venues.

This involved the procurement of 17km of barriers, 300 toilets, and 10,000 bright pink foam fingers.

More significantly, it gave thousands of young people their first meaningful work experience and supported many others back into jobs.

We offered training, qualifications, and a stepping-stone into a good career.

We also helped change attitudes and outcomes for the public good; the 2012 legacy showed 1.4 million more people playing sport once a week, an increase in volunteering, and 81% of people seeing a positive effect on how disabled people are viewed by the public.

Public procurement also helped us build one of the most accessible public spaces in the UK in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

We adapted miles of streets and public spaces across London and the UK through a huge programme of dropped kerbs, ramps, handrails, integrated transport, and inclusive infrastructure.

I now live on the edge of the Park with my young family and see the benefits of this accessibility every day.

I’ve diligently stress-tested every inch of the Park pushing prams.

My son goes to school in what was the athletes’ medical centre, learned to ride his bike in the Velodrome, and to swim in the Aquatics Centre.

He sees the benefit, as does his Godfather who is a wheelchair user, so do my elderly parents, and so will an expected 125m visitors by 2031.

It will eventually create 40,000 jobs and 33,000 homes. With foresight, vision and opportunity, good procurement can make a difference for people of all ages for a generation.

The Social Value Model

We can learn a lot from big set piece investments such as London 2012, but also need to make sure that these principles are reflected in everyday public spending at national, regional and local levels.

Over the last decade we have seen a maturing market. In 2013 the Social Value Act required public good to be considered in some contracts, in 2018 central government announced it would evaluate social value when awarding most major contracts, and since January 2021 all central government organisations must now use the Social Value Model for public procurement.

This means all large public procurement must include a minimum of 10% social value criteria.

These promote the UN Sustainable Development Goals, alongside priorities such as supporting the COVID-19 recovery, tackling economic inequality, increasing supply chain resilience, fighting climate change, reducing the disability employment gap, and improving health, wellbeing, and community cohesion.

This brings £49 billion of public spending into scope each year.

That’s more than the GDP of Slovenia.

With 10% of the economic output of a decent sized European country at your disposal you can leverage serious social benefits.

This can be strategically aligned to create ecosystems, positive feedback loops, and shape markets.

Instead of a series of narrowly focused standalone contracts, public procurement can become more than the sum of its parts.

This sets the benchmark and raises the expectations for clients and customers far beyond the public procurement system.

This wider strategic view means procurement can also be integrated with other government priorities such as the Good Work Plan or reducing the disability employment gap.

The recently published National Disability Strategy has plans for a Disability Commissioning Taskforce (user-led organisations improving access to government contracts), and a Disability Crown Representative to help the government to act as a single customer.

Time will tell if these strategies go far enough, but a joined-up approach backed up by real world spending has huge potential.

Getting from A to B

If A was the start of the journey with the 2013 Act what are the B, C and D that will shape the future of procurement for the public good in years to come?

• B is for Brexit – We’ve already seeing OJEU replaced, and while there may not be immediate divergence, the UK Government has consulted on proposed changes to the public procurement regime. In the long term we may see more emphasis on supporting domestic suppliers. The UK is at a crossroad where it may go further or slip behind international comparators in terms of social value expectations.

• C is for COVID – The pandemic has made social value more vital than ever. Inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated in employment, access to services, education, training, and health. Supporting the COVID recovery is already built into the government’s Social Value Model scoring framework. The furlough scheme and Kickstart show that direct state intervention has become necessary in times of crisis. With levels of public borrowing at a record high, and costs to service those debts at a record low, there is a lot of potential for public procurement to shape social good.

• D is for Devolution – For both national governments and Mayoral Combined Authorities, devolution of public procurement has been a driving force of recent years. This is beneficial in supporting local SMEs and voluntary organisations within supply chains, ensuring procurement meets local needs and represents local demands. This can be seen in the West Midlands’ commitment to local supply chains for HS2, or Greater Manchester’s Good Employment Charter being embedded in public procurement.

More than the cherry on the cake

Increased supply chain resilience, local delivery partners, more inclusive workplaces, embedding lived experience, and improving staff health and wellbeing – these all have social value - but they also make the delivery of the contract itself better.

Social value has now become unignorable for bidders, benefiting supply chains, boosting innovation, and driving competition.

Previously, the social value criteria in public procurement were seen by some bidders as the ‘cherry on the cake’ (eye-catching, but usually the first thing removed and not always a good indicator of what was in the cake).

We now need to ensure that social value is baked into the whole contract.

Patrick Thomson will be joining the Shaw Trust Foundation as policy institute director this month

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