Thursday, 17 July 2008

Government Procurement: A Hopeless Mess

The marking of SATs (national exams for children aged 11 and 14) is a national joke with many papers unmarked and some not even collected. These were outsourced for the first time this year but, we are reassured by a government spokesman, all the proper procurement procedure was followed in selecting the company to do it.

This reminds me of the old 19th century verdict on amputations, that “the operation was a success but the patient died”. The fact is that most government procedure is a bureaucratic joke and if it chooses the best supplier it is probably by accident.

Reality check: The process chose the wrong company to mark the SATs papers. Rather than checking if the right boxes were ticked during the process, they should be asking "What is wrong with our procurement system that we cocked up so badly?"

Any of us who have been through government procurement can give some clues. In a recent government tender for IT training, there was just one question on IT training itself and 37 on health & safety (learning about computers being a notoriously dangerous practice).

The bid by Happy Computers was thrown out because the accounts were slightly out of date, a requirement that wasn’t even specified. The fact that a survey by the same body had found Happy to be the most employer-focused provider, and the one most highly regarded by its clients, of any in the UK was apparently irrelevant compared to the 3 month delay in posting accounts.

There clearly need to be formal controls in procurement to stop corruption and to ensure responsible companies are chosen. Would it be so radical to have a process that was simple, that involved minimal paperwork and that focused on the company’s ability to actually do the job?

Monday, 7 July 2008

“Pain is Temporary, Quitting Lasts Forever”

The immortal words of Lance Armstrong capture my state of mind as I struggle up the mighty Tourmalet, at 7,000ft the highest pass in the Pyrenees (over twice the height of any mountain in England). The rain is sleeting down and the temperature is near zero, despite it being July, and I am wondering what possessed me to enter the etape – the public stage of the Tour de France.

The local newspaper is to describe the weather as “apocalyptique” and the conditions as ”Dantesque”. And, unlike the marathon, the battle is not just with yourself. Following behind the cyclists is the ‘broom wagon’, which sweeps you off the street if it catches you. Of the 8,500 starters almost two and a half thousand were eliminated.The Tourmalet is a two hour continual climb to a point twice the height of any mountain in England.

But that is not the end. After an exhilarating but freezing descent through the beautiful Gorge de Luz, there is the 5,000 ft Hautacom to conquer. Eventually I finish the 169 kilometres in 9 hours and 6 minutes, 45 minutes ahead of the wagon and the sense of achievement is overwhelming.I have been training for five months but I realise as I ascend the mountain that it is all about determination.

It reminds me of Lance’s statement that it is not the fittest cyclist who wins the race, but the one who can endure the most pain. His quote that “Pain is Temporary” rings true for me after the ride. But it applies not just to physical endurance but also to any activity where it feels too difficult to carry on. In the short term it can feel easier to quit. But in the long term….

Serious cycling has also taught me the power of the group. Going at 21 mph as part of a ‘peloton’ (a group of cyclists in formation) is easier than 16 mph on your own. This is partly down to science (you need far less power when ‘slipstreaming’ the cyclist in front) but also reminds me of the energy and drive of a group of people working towards a shared goal.

And my thanks to our friends at training company Maynard Leigh. It was their Start the Year event in January that set me on this crazy target. And it reminded me that when you really focus on something – and put in the work – anything is achievable.