Cabinet Office SOS – send for the consultants!

The Times on Friday reported that the UK’s Cabinet Office was leading a drive to bring in ‘hundreds’ of external experts to help major programmes and projects across government, many with a major procurement element.

“The experts from management consultants and other industries will help to turn around difficult schemes such as Universal Credit, High Speed rail (HS2), and electronic tagging. They will also help to monitor new contracts and bulk purchasing across the public sector”.

You might interpret this as a sensible way of injecting expertise into the public sector. Or you might see it as a huge climb-down from a government that made a big thing about having less dependence on external paid advisers compared to the previous Labour government. Because however this is dressed up, it is in effect an Emergency Call – “send for the consultants”!

It’s not clear whether this is a different bunch of people to the 100 or so Bill Crothers told the Public Accounts Committee recently he was recruiting for the Crown Commercial Service. But I thought they were going to be full-time procurement staff to man the centralised procurement team – this sounds a little different?

What is clear though is that after three and a half years in power, the government has failed in one key sense. It has not managed to develop the commercial and project management skills internally to deliver what it wants to deliver in terms of these programmes. Hence the need for external support.  Actually, 3 years isn’t that long really in terms of trying to make a radical improvement in capability, but it’s not clear that we’re even moving in the right direction. Or – just maybe – some of these programmes are simply undeliverable because of their size and complexity (as we have discussed before).

So, will all these external experts make the difference? If you look at Universal Credit, we already have a Programme Lead in Howard Shiplee who is seen as one of the very best in the business, the Cabinet Office Digital team working on it alongside the Department of Work and Pensions staff, plus smart people from the various suppliers involved. Will a handful of new ‘experts’ make the difference?

The Times also reported on an expansion of the Crown Commercial Representative scheme. I’m again not clear whether this is new information, as Cabinet Office had already said this was happening a while back.

“...the Government is also hiring “world-class leaders” from the private sector to work with the 39 key contractors such as Serco, Capita and G4S. The Cabinet Office has recruited 15 and is about to appoint a further six or seven. A Whitehall source said that these specialists — known as Crown Representatives — would be hired for 12 months and paid £500 a day”.

We might come back to the question of whether you can get “world class leaders” for £500 a day another day. Tricky I would argue unless they are very public spirited, or independently wealthy like a number of people already at senior levels in the Cabinet Office.

But more urgently, the recent National Audit Office report on the Cabinet Office’s management of major suppliers made some strong recommendations with regard to the Crown Reps, identifying the need for better management information, clearer strategy and objectives, more structure and discipline to their activities. It would be good to think those issues will be addressed before another new bunch of them start running around government markets!

(PS Bill Crothers, government CPO,  is called Crowthers in the article – come on The Times, get your fact checking right!)

Voices (8)

  1. Sam Unkim:

    Final Furlong seems to be enjoying a long Xmas break far far from the internet.

    1. Final Furlong:

      Que?

  2. Trevor Black:

    The best consultants in the world will not be able to reverse major projects that are ill considered and commercially inept. When political dogma gets into overdrive all the consultants can do is to tinker around the edges, e.g. HS2. You can imagine the response from Government if a well respected consultancy made recommendations that the intended project was barking mad to start it in the first place. You simply change Minister and carry on regardless. Such is the world of politics!

  3. Jon Hughes:

    Well well well. Plus ca change, and all that. Lots of words come to mind, beginning with the letter C. Probably starting with Crothers & Co signing up for a top-quality course in change management. Three years to me, Peter, sounds more than enough to do something very significant on critical mass, capacity, competence and capability. Alas, that hasn’t happened. Buying in consultants alone cannot be the answer. When you and I spoke to the PASC, we both argued for a concerted focus on a different reform model that addresses leadership, genuine ownership of major programmes and a different behavioural and change model. Such a challenge seems too much for the Cabinet Office. It could make you despair …. or even a cynic. I’m sure lots of major consultancies have been whispering into the ears of cabinet ministers. In the last government this put billions into their pockets ….. yet with no evidence at all of the necessary boost to the C words listed above.

  4. Effwhitt:

    Leslie Crowther for CPO!

  5. Midfield Captain:

    To be fair to the CO, it seems that it is seeking to plug its ‘capability’ gaps by hiring good ol’ consultants (many of whom I’m sure are very good at their jobs) and also through a sustained recruitment campaign via the Civil Service jobsite and in the usual extra-government publications.

    CO/ERG held a recruitment evening last month and one of the fruits from my networking efforts suggested that a good proportion of the attendees were external interested bods. I’m not sure how widely publicised the evening was within the usual CS channels, but I only found out about the evening from an ex-colleague; I gather that adverts were placed in the Times or the FT, and other publications.

    Taken in the context of Tom Graham’s view above, perhaps the aggregate scenario might indeed suggest an absence of confidence in the CS’s extant commercial prowess.

    Notwithstanding my cynicism, are not the suppliers quoted in the excerpt part of the government’s gang of 40 strategic suppliers who work closesly with the Crown Reps? Boosting the contract management and SRM capability appears laudable, but I wonder if the CO announcement was driven in part by the NAO’s reports on the government effort to manage its strategic suppliers…

  6. Tom Graham:

    Government “has not managed to develop the commercial and project management skills internally”? As a Procurement Manager in Government I know that the skills are already there. The Cabinet clearly has no confidence in any Civil Servant’s commercial skills and thinks the likes of Capita and Serco will save the day. Bearing in mind that it was only a couple of months ago that Government conducted the exercise to find out which Civil Servants had the relevant procurement and commercial qualifications, skills and experience. It would be interesting to know how many Capita, Serco, PWC etc staff qualify in the same way. PS £500 a day? You must be joking!1

  7. InTheAbsenceOfAHorse:

    GDS were sent packing by DWP on Universal Credit.

    http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240210536/Government-Digital-Service-no-longer-involved-with-Universal-Credit-IT-development

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