Central purchasing offers value for money on essential items, argues Ron Hardwick. These are troubled times concerning local authority schools and their purchases of essential equipment, although the Government says not.
Local government reorganisation has led to reduced sums of cash and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth from headteachers, who wonder how they can prioritise their spending on essential items without having to hold yet another Karachi discotheque in the science lab or a bring-and-buy sale in the hall.
Now more than ever there is a need to ensure that equipment is bought for as low a cost as possible without necessarily sacrificing quality on the altar of price.
All the unitary authorities in Lothian have decided to vest their joint faith in central purchasing to help schools preserve as much of their precious hard-earned as they can. In my opinion, to plunder Voltaire, "If central purchasing did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it."
Some teachers cavil against central purchasing, however, suggesting instead that "mummy knows best". They argue vehemently that they should never be told which items to buy and from which sources to buy them, fuelling the argument by quite outrageous claims as to what devolved school management encourages or allows them to do. This "cost versus choice" argument has raged unabated in every public-sector organisation in the land, and Lothian is no exception.
I can demonstrate the worth of a central purchasing service with a simple, practical example. I happened to pick up a buyer's telephone - it was ringing - as I strolled down the office one morning last week. On the other end of the line was an employee from a moderately large secondary school.
"Can you help me?" the woman asked "Probably," I replied, "unless you're from the Inland Revenue."
"I'm looking at an office furniture catalogue. I need to buy a four-drawer filing cabinet. What I want to know is, is there still a 40 per cent discount from the supplier?" "Which supplier is it?" I asked.
She reeled off the name of the supplier. It was not one authorised by central purchasing. I asked a routine question: "What's the price shown in the catalogue?"
"Pounds 206," she replied.
"And you want to know if there's 40 per cent discount from that?" "Yes. "
"So that nets down, let me see, to - I tapped a nearby calculator - Pounds 123.62."
"I suppose so," she responded, wondering where this was leading.
"You require a standard four-drawer filing cabinet - grey, powder-coated, with a 20-gauge mild steel carcass?" I enquired.
I pulled a metaphorical rabbit from out of my hat.
"If you look at central purchasing's general stationery contract, you'll find exactly the same filing cabinet at Pounds 75. So, we've saved you Pounds 48.60."
It is always a surprise to me how many people want to get involved in local authority purchasing, which I always took to be a science of "infinite jest" for anyone not forced to be directly involved in it. Such dilettantism leads to problems for me in trying to establish the economies of scale motif, because, as I have explained, people don't always want what central purchasing provides.
I discussed this the other week with the purchasing director of Stockholm County Council, who was on a Department of Trade and Industry-sponsored visit to find UK suppliers who understood Swedish currency, having failed to find any Swedish ones that do. Stockholm's "spend" is larger than any single local authority in Britain, so I thought Mr Ax was a reasonable enough fellow to ask.
"Tell me, Bjorn," I said (honestly, that was his Christian name), "how do you convince teachers and their superiors at your central purchasing service offers the best possible value for money and is the best possible purchasing option?"
"Vell," he said, "iss simple. I tell zem - you go into your clessrooms ent teach, I sty in my office ent buy. I'm a better buyer then you, ent you're a better teacher then me. Zo, if ve understand that, zen ve'll vork together chust fine."
The brilliance of his argument stood out like a beacon on a dark hilltop.
Any treatise on local authority purchasing could not exclude the law, and in this the ubiquitous European Union figures largely.
One of the great achievements of the European Commission, apart from the straight banana, is that all-embracing legislation now exists that dictates buying within local authorities.
The legislation is so complex that only lawyers and professional buyers have any chance of unravelling it. Schools would find it difficult to handle it themselves and would have to buy in the necessary expertise, yet another drain on their scarce resources.
Lawyers are normally so preoccupied in drafting terms and conditions of purchase, such as "the plural of the defined and undefined terms includes the singular and the singular includes the plural, the masculine the feminine and the feminine the masculine", that they don't wish to immure themselves by taking these extra EC buying tasks on board, so there is a nice little niche for central purchasing to take the lead.
If my central purchasing department has helped in some small way to make the difficult task of teachers and school administrators in Lothian a little bit easier, I draw great personal satisfaction from that. Teachers' jobs are onerous enough, without them having to become purchasing professionals and lawyers as well.
Finally, I hope that all the new Lothian education authorities continue to support the nascent central purchasing service of the City of Edinburgh. They should know it makes cents.
* Ron Hardwick was purchasing manager for Lothian Regional Council