UK Government procurement part 2:The History of OGC – was it all worthwhile?

We wrote last week about OGC disappearing as a single identifiable organisation. And more confirmation came on Friday when Cabinet Office confirmed to me that no OGC Board meetings have been held since April 2010, non-execs haven't been paid since then and they've been told that there are 'likely' to be no further meetings.

So here' s a historical perspective on the organisation formally known as OGC; if you're bored already, or can do without the history lesson, why not skip down to the "Balance Sheet" below and see our opinions on what it achieved in its ten years.

OGC was founded after the 1999 Gershon report which recommended bringing together a number of Government bodies that had a ‘commercial’ remit, including the Central Computer Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), Property Advisors to the Civil Estate (PACE) and The Buying Agency (TBA).

Peter Gershon then became the first Chief Executive, at Permanent Secretary level.  With his combination of private sector credibility, considerable intellect and ability to terrify Permanent Secretaries he gained some real authority in Whitehall (he is apparently pretty much the only man to win an argument with Gordon Brown in Treasury history).  He didn’t endear himself to everyone – and he was not exactly an inspirational conference speaker – but those close to him liked him as well as respected him, and he was very clear about the agenda and what needed to be done.  His crowning glory was the 2004 Efficiency Review, which arguably put procurement higher up the agenda than it had ever been before. That forced Departments to develop efficiency plans, of which procurement was a key part, and although the measurement of savings was flawed, it did put efficiency and procurement on the map in a way it hadn’t been in many areas of Government.

John Oughton was very different – a career civil servant, very easy to get on with, but not someone who commanded such respect from senior colleagues perhaps given his lack of private sector credibility.  And issues that were surfacing under Gershons leadership became more pressing; did OGC have a remit over the wider public sector (local authorities, hospitals etc) or not? That question, and how the landscape of procurement worked (or didn’t work) were issues that were never really resolved through the organisation’s history.  But Oughton continued OGC’s development in some key areas, for instance Property where OGC started to get to grips with the totality of the government estate for the first time ever.

Nigel Smith, who joined in 2007, had Gershon’s private sector background and was both personally impressive and a good organisational manager. He was highly credible, although perhaps lacked Gershon’s ability to strike fear into the hearts of the top mandarins, and he took OGC more confidently back into the wider public sector.  Progress was made in terms of engagement with the top tier of suppliers to Government, and the centre for sustainable procurement was born.  Did Smith manage to mould OGC into the organisation he really wanted? I suspect not, and he found some of the public sector constraints frustrating I’m sure, but he brought a more business-like edge to many OGC activities.

So all in all, did OGC achieve its goals? Here’s my own personal stocktake, with each side of the balance sheet from the last ten years.

Positive

  • Project and programme management improved; Gateway and MPRG processes established and often very valuable
  • Policy – often out of the public spotlight, but a wide range of excellent policy work (guidance, EU liaison)
  • Steady progress in improving management of the Government Estates
  • Awareness and action on efficiency (including procurement) grew throughout Government
  • Procurement taken more seriously; more staff generally, more senior level CPOs for instance
  • Collaboration greatly increased across the public sector

Negative

  • There are more qualified procurement people around, but is the capability of the ‘working level’ procurement officer significantly better than 10 years ago?  I’m not convinced
  • OGC never established a clear value adding role in promoting contract and supplier management; and these areas are still weaknesses for Government
  • Changes in policy focus as political winds changed led to confusion (is it equalities, SMEs, sustainability, apprenticeships...)
  • OGC input into the really big, Departmental specific issues was patchy at best. Arguably OGC failed to stop commercial disasters such as NHS IT programme, Aircraft Carriers, some PFI projects…
  • The ‘procurement landscape’ – who buys what - is just as confusing as it was 10 years ago and more chaotic in some areas (health)

Mixed

  • Data & systems; there is much better spend information available now and more use of eSourcing, ERP, etc.  But there is still some way to go
  • Again, there has been progress on sustainability but I’m not clear OGC has developed a real ‘leadership’ position here
  • I am highly biased (I wrote the original Procurement Capability Review model) but the first round of Reviews were ground breaking and potentially very useful; I remain unconvinced that moving to self-assessment was the right thing for the second wave

So, that’s my highly subjective balance sheet; I’ve left out Buying Solutions because we’ll be looking at them more specifically later this week. And tomorrow we'll look at life after OGC...

Voices (2)

  1. Peter Smith:

    Dan
    Good point! Absolutely agree, only caveat is perhaps OGC could have promoted auctions better / harder generally across the public sector. But the ones run under the collaboration initiative were a clear success. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Dan:

    On the positives (under collaboration) I think the pan-Govt e-Auctions were one of the real tangible things delivered by OGC.

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