Government Commercial Organisation Update (Part 1)

I caught up with Jim Carter from the Cabinet Office recently for a chat about the skills and talent development programme that has been running in Cabinet Office for over a year now. Carter joined about a year ago from Network Rail, and has been “getting out and about”, he says, participating in some 60 events in that time. His role is to provide the key interface between departments and the “centre” and support the development of improved capability and capacity in central government commercial matters.

The talent programme is a key element in the strategy of government’s Chief Commercial Officer Gareth Rhys Williams. He aims to make the new Government Commercial Organisation (GCO) “the best procurement / commercial function in the UK”.

The most visible part of the approach has been the assessment centres which are being run both as part of the recruitment of new senior staff into government procurement, and also as a means of assessing current job-holders at Grade 6 and above. Those who “pass” can transfer to the GCO as their employer, although they stay working day to day in their current organisations. So, we started by talking to Carter about that programme.

The full-day assessment centres have now seen around 800 people going through their doors, many of whom of course were external candidates who didn’t end up getting jobs. But over 100 new staff have been recruited, and some 200 existing senior executives have also participated. “All but one department is now involved or has completed the programme”, says Carter.

The candidates end up with either an “A” grade, which means they can do the most senior roles, a “B” which is a pass mark (as it were) but identifies some areas of development, or a “C” which means basically not suited to senior commercial roles. Those with and A or B can join GCO. There has also been some self-selection – “some people have decided that maybe commercial isn’t really where they want to be long-term and decided not to participate”.

That’s a positive in our view; in the past, there were probably too many civil servants who drifted into procurement without really having any great interest or skills in the field.

While, not surprisingly, we have heard some comments around surprising outcomes from the assessments (“the people in my team weren’t marked as I would have expected”) that may be because there is considerable focus during the days on both the softer commercial skills (such as collaborative working and stakeholder management) and some harder non-commercial skills, such as project management.

Does this mean core aspects such as running a legally compliant evaluation process are not so important? “Not at all. But as the roles become more senior, we do believe that aspects such as stakeholder engagement become relatively more important”, explains Carter. We wouldn’t argue with that.

We pushed for an example of how development needs are addressed, beyond traditional training courses, and Carter talked about one participant who was identified as having some gaps in that stakeholder management area. He or she was moved onto a high-profile contracting exercise that was very much a team effort, and after a fairly short period of time, applied for and succeeded in winning a major promotion.

And the “customer satisfaction” rating from those who have been through the assessment centre is apparently 4.1 out of 5, which sounds pretty impressive.  “Commercial leaders are now telling us that they are seeing better candidates coming through”, Carter claims, which may be down to both that process and also the more generous salaries on offer (although GCO packages are less generous in terms of pension provision). Because of the pension issues, some long-standing civil servants have not transferred their terms and conditions to the new deal, which means they keep their old civil service conditions when the transfer into the Cabinet Office, but “they are still fully involved in all our initiatives”.

We’ll be back tomorrow with more about the programme, looking beyond the assessment centres.

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