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Seeding and scaling

Procurement. Another small word with big meaning. A cartoon might characterise the argument about procurement as scaling or bundling packages of works to be delivered cheaper, and seeding, creating conditions for local participation and local effects. The difference between the two is vast. Perhaps one way of understanding the difference is questioning the common good; what is the common good context in your place and how do you procure it?

Some see public estates as a key problem. There are too many properties distributed in too many places. It is inefficient, and locks up various forms of capital. Releasing this capital would be beneficial as would some rationalisation of the estate. Typically, this means a large building with more services and disposing of other properties, either through sale or mothballing. Costs reduce. Short term revenue through sales might increase. It is more efficient. But what is the public good cost of this efficiency?

Tallin recently built a new parliament. By all accounts it is a fantastic building; modern, confident and of its place. The Estonians are proud. An architect attending a convention on the creative economy in the city was asked what he thought. He mulled the question and said it was nice. ‘Nice’ is a small word whose scale is disproportionate to the disappointment some people feel when they hear it. The interviewer was disappointed.

The architect went on. He suggested that we need to think about what a modern parliament means, what spaces you need to represent the idea of that institution. Clearly, the parliament needs a ceremonial space, a space for the legislature. However, most of the back office function doesn’t have to be in the same building. It could be somewhere else.

Imagine, he argued, that the idea of the parliament was distributed over the neighbourhoods of the city. In every neighbourhood there could be some civic office linked to the idea of the parliament. Following this line of argument, the distance between the citizen and the parliament has been dramatically reduced. The institution becomes part of everyone’s everyday, enabled by a distributed estate. You might argue that this way of representing the parliament physically seeds different ideas of democracy.

If outcomes are the driver of public policy decision-making, then on the path to achieving the best common good outcome there will be inefficiencies in some decisions. If every decision has to be optimised, if every scale of decision-making has to achieve the best value, then where are the spaces to negotiate the best overall outcome? Scaling purchases makes a lot of cost sense in many contexts.

Seeding different levels of economic performance makes a lot of sense in many contexts. Scaling only as a strategy for procurement, at all levels of decision-making, reduces local opportunity, local creativity, local chances. Procurement as a tool of achieving the best public policy outcomes founded on an understanding of what a place based idea of the common good is cannot be either about scaling or seeding. At some level, and in most places, it is about both.

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