We Have A Social Responsibility To Our Procurement Practices

Author: James York

I recently visited the Czech Republic with a colleague from Crossrail, Shelley Browne, to support Nova Ekonomika which is delivering a European-funded programme to promote responsible public procurement. Our visit was to join a discussion panel at a conference in Prague attended by over 150 delegates including the British ambassador, the Minister for Labour and Social affairs and numerous mayors (not the ceremonial kind) from municipalities in the Czech Republic.

Our objective was to convince the delegates, in particular those responsible for letting public sector contracts that responsible procurement was not only a socially responsible thing to do, but it was possible. Talking through the experiences gained from Costain’s joint venture projects for Crossrail provided tangible evidence that contractors can and will deliver social outcomes such as local recruitment and apprenticeships if they are contractually required. Of course in the UK it is normal to consider the socio economic issues of the communities we work within and we do not need contractual obligations, but targets to focus minds of course. To my amazement the Czech’s were concerned that their contractors would not tender for work, or at the least not deliver on obligations if social elements were contractual requirements.

Of course responsible procurement is not limited to social elements, the environment and safety all figure too. Safety is an obvious requirement, but I was left with doubts whether the environment is given more than a glancing consideration when letting contracts, which are invariably always let on the lowest price. We were told that any contracts not let for the lowest price came under scrutiny and were more often than not audited with suspicion of corruption.

Of the brief we were given from Nova Ekonomika, Value for Money was top of the agenda. Shaun McCarthy, director at Action Sustainability gave some fantastic examples from the London 2012 Olympic construction programme demonstrating the true value of responsible procurement, well in fact much more than that, of sustainability in general.

The communist shadow that lingers over the Czech Republic in my view seems to create barriers and whilst all would agree that they want rid of the monkey that is on their backs, they are incredibly constrained by invisible tape to do so. Whilst there were some isolated examples of responsible procurement, these were few and far between in the grand scheme of public procurement and there is much work to do before it becomes a norm.

I was left thinking that the Czech Republic needed another carrot or stick to encourage contractors to lead the way instead of waiting on the bureaucratic public service to implement a cultural change. Perhaps the Czech version of the Considerate Constructors Scheme would fit the mould? I will watch developments in Prague with great interest and hope that in a small way that Costain was able to make a difference in a beautiful country that I will definitely be visiting in the future with my family.