Posted on April 6, 2016
The Refugee Business
I suppose I should have realised that when I was invited to a meeting titled “Market Engagement” something about business would follow.
This was in fact a meeting to brief organisations who were hoping to be involved in providing services to refugees in our county under the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme (SVPRP). As a representative of a welcoming organisation I went with a “listen and learn” brief, our organisation was there to ensure that any refugees arriving in our town were appropriately welcomed and supported.
The meeting was introduced by two members of the procurement team who explained the need for governance in the selection of bidders for tenders that would over the next few weeks take place competitively. So from the start the market was well engaged but were we?
We were welcomed (but only introduced after a prompt from the floor) and questions were taken but when we asked for some engagement (being represented on some of the panels involved in making the decisions), we were told that was not how things were done. But why not, wouldn’t it be sensible to engage those voluntary organisations present whose only concern was to ensure the refugees had a decent welcome by friendly faces? No, because it would represent a conflict of interest. Why? Because it would be like “having your sister-in-law on the panel.” So not much engagement there.
We sought further engagement more informally following the meeting, trying to work out who the front-runner might be and who we would see as adding most value to our work. There had been an audible gasp in the room when the procurement team explained that the weighting criteria for selection of providers, would be 70% on cost. Talking to people afterwards about this revealed that this was higher than elsewhere in the country and suggested that there was some pressure to keep costs down to (or below?) the minimum, in order to win the tender. Which led to other concerns being voiced about local authorities who were putting themselves forward to receive refugees in order to benefit from the widely recognised generosity of the £8250 capitation being offered by the SVPRP for every refugee received under the scheme. The whispered story was that early-adopter councils had found that they could provide all the necessary support to refugees and make a tidy “profit” too; surely an element of the market-place which should be, if true, nipped in the bud. Perhaps this attitude is encouraged by the tenders being awarded to providers with Performance Related Pay which may encourage running a dangerously slim operation by providers keen to win contacts; with low costs demanded and surpluses available to be spent elsewhere on hard pressed budgets. If true; dirty business.
I came away feeling very un-engaged and wondering why the market was relevant here at all. After all this is a fairly simple operation driven by compassion and humanity (where markets have no particular expertise). Undoubtedly a market based procurement approach is how the modern local authority manages its business in the search for best value. But isn’t it just another example of markets hitting the target but missing the point, by creating conditions in which there is a race to the bottom when good citizenship and generous communities should rule the day?