Public services 'not getting good value' says PAC
Public bodies are not using their purchasing power to get the best price for equipment and services, Stormont's spending watchdog has found.
The Public Accounts Committee has called for a review of current procurement structures, which account for about £2.7bn in annual spending.
It found the current set-up was not creating enough opportunities for more efficient purchasing.
There was a "lack of a joined-up collaborative strategy", it found.
Committee chairwoman Michaela Boyle said they had found a number of problems with the current arrangements, which have been in place for more than a decade.
"We are concerned that current processes do not include a fully developed collaborative procurement strategy, something that everyone agrees provides the best outcomes," she said.
"It is also unacceptable that the Department of Finance and Personnel and the wider public sector do not have ready access to or share the basic management information necessary to facilitate effective collaboration."
Created in 2002, the Procurement Board oversees the process and is accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Seven bodies, known as Centres of Procurement Expertise (CoPEs), operate under the board and look after purchasing in organisations including the Roads Service, NI Water, Translink, education and library boards, the Housing Executive and health service properties.
The Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) operates within the Department of Finance and Personnel, and Ms Boyle said the assembly committee had found it was "not recording sufficient information that would allow for more robust collaboration between different CoPEs".
She added: "We are also concerned that different CoPEs are paying varying prices for common goods and services and there is little of price benchmarking or standardisation of specifications."
Other findings include:
- The Department of Finance and Personnel has set unambitious collaborative procurement savings targets
- There is evidence of non-governmental public bodies paying several times more than the lowest prices for common goods like laptops and computer monitors
- Procurement bodies should ensure that small businesses are not unfairly disadvantaged by increased collaboration.
Stormont Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said it was "important not only to look at the award of any contract but also the impact of that contract award on other Northern Ireland suppliers and contractors working in that sector".
"We need to think carefully about the use and impact of large value collaborative contracts, because if not handled correctly it could prevent local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from bidding for government contracts," he said.
He said he was disappointed that the report had not given more credit to work done to ensure the involvement of local SMEs in government contracts.
"It should be noted that local SMEs are bidding for and winning contracts - recent figures show that 80% of contracts went to SMEs - and I want to ensure that this continues, always of course within public procurement law," he said.