Civil Service Capabilities Plan – Procurement high on the agenda, but risks as well?

Yesterday we published our view of the The UK Civil Service Reform capabilities plan – “Meeting the challenge of change”, which had a lot of focus on procurement and some very positive moves. But the further steps towards centralising Whitehall procurement do also give a few causes for concern. Here are three issues which balance the undoubted positives.

1.            The first rule of setting procurement strategy is that it must align with the wider organisational strategy, aims and objectives. Does the emerging more centralised procurement approach meet that requirement? Well, we might argue that value for money is fundamental at the moment, so it’s not surprising if that is the main procurement driver.  Similarly, the new Complex Transactions Team, to work on major IT programmes, might well end up providing scarce expertise to support projects that have strategic importance.

 What worries me though is that these procurement strategies do not seem to be aligned with broader "business" strategies, particularly organisational.  So there doesn't seem to be a wider move to reduce Permanent Secretaries authority or independence, or  centralise Whitehall work in general.  Why not have some shared top management teams for the smaller Departments if you want to knock down the organisational silos? So it feels like Procurement is a bit of an experiment in centralisation, unaligned with the overall strategic system design.

2.            Linked to all that is the question of Permanent Secretary and senior civil service accountability – and even to some extent Ministerial accountability. Once any important element of an organisation’s work is taken out of their hands, we know that this clouds the picture if accountability comes into question. Why did that project fail, costing the taxpayer millions? Why was customer service so poor last year? What happened to that great idea that never got off the ground?

We know that the UK  civil service has not been terribly good historically at taking accountability for poor performance – there are plenty of examples where the press ends up saying “why has no-one been fired”?!  And these moves may increase the lack of clarity. So the answers to the questions above might become “because we were told to use these consultants by the central GPS procurement people”.  “Our call centre didn’t perform and that was chosen by Cabinet Office”.  “The Major Projects Authority told us the project was doing fine right up to the point it collapsed”. Or “the GPS supplier failed to deliver in the timescales we needed”.

I foresee some very frustrated Public Accounts Committees ahead, as they fail to tie down ownership of failure. And this could apply to Ministers, not just civil servants.

3.            Finally, we have the concentration of power in the hands of GPS. That’s both power overthe market, with the level of spend they will control, and also over public organisations. How will we ensure that they perform as well as possible, particularly once they have no competition  (if departments have transferred their work to GPS)?

 I have a lot of faith in David Shields and the current team, but they won’t be there forever. Lack of competition breeds complacency, in pretty much every case I can think of. How will GPS avoid falling into that trap?

Voices (2)

  1. Dan2:

    I’d also be interested to see where the Cabinet Office ended up on their view on TUPE applying to any roles no longer required in the department where work is transferring out of

  2. Feetontheground:

    Peter you are so right,

    We are now faced with a situation whereby a Departmental Agency, with an approved business strategy and associated budget has to get Departmental and then Cabinet Office approval before they can proceed. A process that would take around 8 weeks if everything goes through cleanly, but significantly longer if the recommended route is challenged. This means project delays, cost overruns and under performance of the new service can all be blamed on somebody else!

    There seems to be an assumption that all Government procurement staff are below par, something that is patently not so. I am sure there is scope for some pruning and weeding but there are also some very strong shoots that should be encouraged to grow (sorry for the gardening analogy, its getting to that time of year!). I believe that mandated central contracts are good (saves each dept replicating such arrangements) but that we should use an exemption facility where we have a justifiable need to do something different. Professionally qualified local procurement staff should be left to deal with more strategic procurement, working closely with their internal stakeholders to deliver the business objectives that their Perm Sec and Ministers have approved. This would also address the question of when do common goods or services become strategic (e.g. buying ‘tin’ vs contracting for a managed service). Accountability for success (which would include compliance with central mandates) then remains within the Dept.

    I think the Departments and therefore the public they serve will suffer, if we see everything pushed into the centre and an end to local procurement .

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