Helen Ashley: Procurement skills gap needs bridging

Using PR agencies or freelancers can be a cost-efficient way for local government to supplement in-house resources or to bring in experience and expertise not available internally.

But local government communicators often feel they lack the experience and skills needed to manage contracts effectively and that they are being hampered by bureaucratic and time-consuming processes.

One of the perennial bugbears of public sector agencies is a lack of core competencies in procurement from council comms departments. But the skills gap is no surprise. Unlike most of their council counterparts, comms teams do not have their own procurement specialist, nor do they tend to use their authority's central procurement team. And yet councils do not appear to train PROs in procurement – if they do, the training appears insufficient. 

The best-written briefs tend to come from non-comms departments. For example, environmental services teams have a good idea of how procurement should work because the outsourcing of, say, waste management is an intrinsic part of what they do.

Housing trusts also boast a reasonable level of procurement skills.

Last year, Southwark Housing  provided a soundly written brief with clear objectives, information to help agencies understand initiatives being tendered for, and detailed pitch criteria (creativity and experience). And it kept to the timetable for decision making.

These are areas where local government PROs fall short, and if comms departments continue to handle procurement on their own, they must be brought up to speed with its basic requirements. Outsourcing will only be cost-effective if the process is efficient from the ground up.

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