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Deciding who should manage procurement in your trust
You need to set the right level of delegation when it comes to procurement, based on what’s right for your trust. Use this guidance to help you decide how centralised your procurement should be, and how to delegate key tasks.
Consider these questions
Exactly how your approach to procurement works will depend on your organisational structure and how you then delegate purchasing and contract management tasks.
Consider the following questions to think about the best structural approach for your trust - i.e. what you control centrally, versus how much you delegate.
What’s your vision for where you want to be in 3 or 5 years' time?
You need to consider your trust strategic plan and objectives when thinking about what procurement decisions you centralise or delegate.
You might centralise some procurement because it'll help you achieve a trust-wide objective. For example, if your trust wants to be fully cloud based in 3 years, you might centralise much of your IT procurement. That way you make sure your trust buys strictly cloud-based products and services rather than server based.
What are you purchasing and what level of standardisation is there between individual academies’ orders?
This will influence what you do. For example, if you need multiple contracts with different needs for each school, sourcing all the different goods and services centrally could be challenging. It's probably easier to let your schools source this and have them consult with your central team.
Alternatively, you might centralise procurement of external professional services, so that there’s a consistent approach across your trust.
Does the decision impact the autonomy of your academies?
If some procurement decisions are important for your academies to keep their sense of uniqueness, you might decide to compromise on possible savings or economies of scale and instead delegate these decisions to your academies.
For example, buying into educational enrichment activities might be something your schools wish to decide for themselves.
How large is your trust?
If you're managing procurement centrally in a large trust, it can be hard to understand every school's needs. In this case you might decide to delegate certain tasks to your schools. For example, you might ask school-based staff to fill in an online form with the key details about their service needs. You'd then use this to inform the purchase and service levels in the contract.
On the other hand, if you have a procurement specialist (or team) in-house, then they're likely responsible and accountable for overseeing each element of the procurement process. Part of their job would involve consulting with schools termly or annually for feedback, to understand schools’ needs and make sure the service continues to meet these needs.
Does your trust have clustered or dispersed locations?
Clustered locations can usually have more localised systems due to local familiarity and ease of delivery within the cluster. For example, clusters of schools can nurture relationships with local grounds maintenance contractors or local building companies, securing effective services from them, which a central cannot achieve as easily.
With dispersed locations on the other hand, the geographic spread can influence certain parts of procurement. For example, how you measure supplier performance when catering to a school in central London will differ to a school in the countryside - you'd expect, for example, prices and delivery times to differ. These differences may be better understood by the local management than central management, influencing how much authority you delegate.
Do you have the right access to external expertise?
This is particularly important for larger purchases, such as commercial leases. Even if your trust has a legal team, they may not have suitable experience. Carry out a skills audit to see what your internal capabilities are and whether suitably experienced people will be available for the duration of the project.
The benefits of different approaches
If you're struggling to decide how to delegate responsibility, this section looks at some of the implications of centralising, partly delegating or fully delegating contract management.
There's no 'correct' approach - think about the questions above and the characteristics of each approach below to decide what works for your trust.
Fully centralised procurement management
With centrally controlled procurement, you can implement any efficiencies you discover or changes in policy across your trust to help every school. Reviewing and monitoring each school will be easier because of the consistency across your trust.
There's also more scope to negotiate on price. For example, if you pool all of your facility-management supplies together and distribute supplies yourself. This has the potential to be more efficient than multiple schools placing individual small-volume orders.
With this approach, it’s important that you talk to the people (i.e. your schools) who'll use the goods/services you plan to buy, to take their needs into account.
Centralised contract creation, with local contract maintenance
In this arrangement, your central team creates the contracts. This is useful because you'll likely have greater expertise in the central team. For example, through an official legal/procurement function. Then, schools maintain the arrangement locally, i.e. receiving the supplies or services, giving feedback to central office and requesting changes. This lets schools focus more on providing their main services.
You need to make it easy for schools to let your central team know what they need. If there are large fluctuations in demands, your central team might spend a lot of time making adjustments. If your trust has very geographically dispersed schools, does your central team understand each regional market? Do they know the local suppliers who can better serve in that area?
It might be that although your central team is responsible for contract creation, your schools could go through the contract register with your central team ahead of time. By doing this, your schools can clarify their needs so they're reflected in the contract, e.g. how long they want it to be, whether they want an extension term, who owns the intellectual property, etc.
Local contract creation with centralised contract management
The inverse of the above arrangement. Your central team would still have opportunities to find efficiencies across all schools and set overarching policies/procedures, but your schools would take on the contract setting functions as covered in our article on putting a contract in place.
Fully delegated control to schools
This can lead to easier delivery management, as schools can schedule locally for when deliveries of supplies best suit them. They'll also be able to vary orders themselves to suit seasonal demand, rather than having to ask your central team to do this for them.
For example, this is useful for one-off contracts, because going through your central team could slow the process down. If it's one-off, there's no potential for long-term consolidation, so no benefit to looking for crossover opportunities with other contracts across the trust.
Local control can encourage creativity, giving schools the incentive to make processes simpler, which could result in transformative changes.
If you take this approach, make sure there are procedures in place to support communication between schools so they share knowledge across the trust.
This approach is also dependent on how you manage centralised finances. Even if there's full school control for contracting, your schools will have less flexibility if your central team has greater control of schools' budget and spending.
A combined approach
The more you can standardise your approach, the easier you may find things - but an entirely centralised or entirely local function may not be possible. You might have a mix of approaches across different purchases.
For example, if you have one special school in a trust of otherwise mainstream schools, you might manage most contracts for 'standardised' items centrally - e.g. energy providers, broadband, grounds maintenance - but some purchases will always be specific to that school and therefore make sense to delegate.
Decide who will manage particular tasks
The sections above look at your 'macro' approach to procurement - i.e your organisational approach. You then need to consider the 'micro' element - namely, the role of the individuals within that.
Procurement is more of a cyclical process than an end-to-end journey
Once you've planned and followed a purchasing process, you'll create and sign a contract, and then you'll manage that contract and the relationship with that supplier. But how you manage that contract, and strategic decisions you make, will inform future purchases.
Think about where you want people to be involved throughout
Remember that whoever's managing a contract should also have participated in the process of requesting tenders to some degree, so they know exactly what's expected from the contract, and to present a consistent front to the supplier. But no individual can manage every purchase and every contract entirely on their own.
When it comes to individuals' roles, you can either:
- Have a single person to take care of all aspects for a certain good/service - or a number of goods/services, or
- Assign a team who'll manage individual aspects across all contracts
You don't have to assign tasks purely within a central procurement team; the team approach works even if you're delegating tasks to individual schools. And as with your organisational approach, you may have a mixture of these options.
For example, with high-value contracts or important suppliers you might take the opportunity to split responsibilities among a team, with each person or part of the team specialising in a certain area. But for low-value and low-importance contracts, or contracts that are specific to one school, you're more likely to be able to delegate all tasks to an individual.
Whatever you chose, make sure everyone involved in the process is fully aware of their role, their responsibilities and the level of delegated authority they have. Carry out training with your staff to make sure this is clear.
Download our template to record the people involved on each contract
Follow a RACI approach for each purchase. This'll help you stay on top of who's responsible for what, especially if you use a mixture of the 2 approaches described in the section above.
Identify all the people involved in the contract (internally) and list them along the top of the chart, with each of the tasks along the side. Then use the chart to denote who will be:
- Responsible: actually carrying out the action
- Accountable: responsible for ensuring the action takes place (can only be one)
- Consulted: their views need to be considered
- Informed: but they have no decision making or influencing role
We've created a template to help you do this and included 2 examples. You don't have to use the same broad areas we've used, and you can add more tasks for each of the areas if you need to.
If you're unsure who should be responsible for each task, conduct a quick skills audit. This could be a subjective decision made by management, or you could ask staff to recommend employees they think would be suited for certain roles.
Now you've thought about your structural approach and assigned the right people, check out our guidance on:
- Planning procurement (including how to write a specification and business case, and how to choose the right buying process)
- Putting a contract in place
- Managing a contract
Thanks to the following for their help with this article:
- We originally created this content with Upside Projects, a consultancy that aims to transform public services through technology-led change. Upside Projects has 25 years of experience delivering complex, technology-enabled change and innovation programmes in all areas of the UK public sector. In education, it provides commercial and supply chain related support to MATs to help them drive greater value out of schools' non-staff spend, while also working with suppliers to release value that can be reinvested in education. For more information please visit Upside Projects or get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jonathan Davis MBE LLB(Hons) is currently Finance Director at a primary focused trust of 4 schools. Before returning to educational finance, Jonathan ran his own school clerking and governance consultancy business and acted as an independent consultant for several large educationally focused consultancies
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