Hugh Barrett – The Pre-Gap Year Interview (Part 2)

Yesterday, we published the first part of our interview with Hugh Barrett. He has been Director of Legal Aid Commissioning and Strategy at the Legal Aid Agency for the past eight years but is now heading off on a “gap year”, travelling the world.

Before Legal Aid, he was CEO of OGCbuying.solutions, the forerunner organisation to Crown Commercial Service (CCS). So we asked how he felt about the mandated and centralised approach to common categories that CCS is now taking, given that use of OGCbuying.solutions deals was totally voluntary in his day.

"Philosophically, I probably just about come down on the side of voluntary use of central procurement. However, it was very frustrating at times - when I was in that position, there were spend areas that really should have been more centralised, and sometimes the reasons people did not collaborate weren't good ones. So whilst in an ideal world you wouldn’t need the mandate, I can see the argument for having it”.

We also talked about the work of Cabinet Office and the nascent Government Procurement Organisation (GCO). The intent is that all senior central government procurement and commercial staff will be employed by Cabinet Office as part of a distinct professional cohort. How does he feel about that?

“I’m very positive about much of what Cabinet Office is doing – for instance, graduate entry and procurement apprenticeships are great. The GCO seems to be mainly about being able to pay better salaries to professionals. That's fine, but I do wonder whether a whole new organisation is needed to achieve that goal? And is money really the issue in terms of attracting talent? Under Peter Gershon, good people joined because they were inspired by what he and OGC was trying to do. Money isn't everything".

There is also a danger that it could be divisive, both between the junior staff still in departments and the GCO team, and in terms of salaries as “existing civil servants aren’t going to get any increases”. However, Hugh does not perceive any problem in terms of one of the areas that has concerned us – the danger that senior staff, permanent secretaries and the like, may feel uneasy about "their" staff actually being part of Cabinet Office.

"I don't see that as a big worry. It works OK for the Government Legal Service; I don't see those people treated any differently within departments so that should not be an issue for the GCO".

But there are still questions about whether it will happen of course and Hugh speculates on the post-Brexit world - "there is so much going on in the civil service now, as we try and get in position for the Brexit process, there might be some questions of prioritisation here".

Coming back to his departure and the Legal Aid Agency, has a replacement been identified? "No, I’m not being replaced. Our CEO will take on the commercial and commissioning leadership role".

OK, that was the moment where my jaw dropped. Really? £2 billion a year spend and no board-level commercial / commissioning person?  Frankly that seems extraordinary at a time when the government is supposedly taking more interest in commercial issues, capability and leadership. But there are also severe cost pressures in all departments including the Ministry of Justice, the parent department for the Legal Aid Agency, and that is obviously playing into that decision.

Now, the question we were dying to ask. How has he enjoyed working with various Ministers? Unfortunately, he insisted that his answers were firmly off the record! He had more positives than negatives generally though, and was happy to say that "Ken Clarke was probably the most likeable - very bright, but clearly a real human being too, into jazz, bird watching and so on".

So is this the end of his glorious commercial career? What happens after the gap year?  "We'll see how I feel. Maybe some non-executive type work, but I really don't know at the moment".

As we said before, Barrett has filled an almost impossible job with calmness, good judgement and tenacity, and we reckon made as much of a success of it as anyone could. And the fact he hasn't had a nervous breakdown after spending eight years dealing every day with the legal profession is a miracle. So we wish him an excellent "gap year", thank him for his time and this interview and hope that perhaps we will see him back in our procurement world at some point in the future.

(Late news - here is Hugh's blog and the first entry, posted yesterday, if you want to feel very jealous)!

Discuss this:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *