Election day dawns – what lies ahead for procurement and Ministers?

I was a senior civil servant (Procurement Director) in the Department of Social Security in 1997 when we had the last change of ruling party.  It was all very exciting; a sort of 'end of term' feeling for civil servants, and a palpable air of weary resignation from Ministers who knew their time had run out.

I suspect it is rather different this time; civil servants were generally quite positive about 'New Labour' whereas this time, there must be some trepidation about what is to come - and that is true whoever wins given the need for spending cuts.

But what was clear once Labour Ministers appeared, and meetings with officials started, was that the change was not going to be as instant as certainly I had expected.  We were told to carry on, even with some quite major and sensitive outsourcing type projects which I thought might well be stopped.

And that memory made me reflect on the task ahead for the new Ministers if it is (let's say) a Tory or Tory/Liberal government.  No matter how well briefed and prepared they are, stepping into the MOD, Health, DWP or DCSF must be very daunting, particularly if you are a Minister who has never run a large (or even small) organisation before. (And even smaller Departments have some meaty challenges ahead - reform the BBC? Climate Change?  Crossrail?)

"Welcome Minister. Which of your 100,000 plus staff would you like to meet first?  And we need you to sign a few pieces of paper; nothing serious, just to keep things rolling; we do spend several billion pounds a week you know"...

Then the discussion about priorities and manifesto will get started.

"So Mr Fox - what would you like to focus on first?"

"Well, we really do need to get defence procurement sorted out.  We said that in the manifesto".

"You are so right Minister. An excellent place to start.  What exactly would you like to do"?

"Well, sort out defence procurement."

"I'm afraid you need to give us a bit more of a steer.  That has been a high priority for the last 13 years; frankly, if we knew how to do it...we would have done it by now".

"But you must have some thoughts - I mean we have some broad ideas..."

"Excellent, we can get some people looking at those...not consultants of course...we will have to find a few of our best people who have some capacity.  I would think that within 3 months or so we can probably have an exploratory discussion document ready for you with some options for re-engineering the acquisition process...again..."

"But that's far too long! I need action immediately!"

"Minister, we do fully support your intent. But I'm afraid we've spent many hundreds of millions on consultants (and I know how much you hate those), reorganisations, training to improve procurement....and I have to tell you we have no 'magic bullet' if you pardon the pun.  And of course, you have also stated that you will cut the headcount in non uniformed areas by 25%.  (I'm sure you do realise that this includes firefighters, instructors, logistics and repair staff....)  But anyway, we will obviously need to make these improvements while losing a quarter of our staff. Oh, and by the way, we have done some work on that redundancy programme; we can show you the plans.  The one-off redundancy cost we estimate at a nice round £ 1 billion."

And that's the point at which the Minister thinks "Oh S**t"!

Well, I know I would...but perhaps that's why I'm not a politician.

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