Kelly, Collier and Crothers at the Public Administration Select Committee on Procurement (part 2)

(Continuing our review of the UK Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee hearing into procurement with Sally Collier, Bill Crothers and Stephen Kelly, from the Cabinet Office...)

One of the Committee members raises the recent NAO report and criticism of Government Procurement Service (GPS). Crothers says report was generally complimentary – he’s right, and right to defend his organisation.

How does Cabinet Office consult with departments when developing specifications for central contracts? Good question, which for some reason Crothers struggles with – gets hold of wrong end of stick and talks about standard contracts.  Colllier has got it – she answers very well. Can we always meet 100% of departments’ requirements?  No. But we do consult.

Jenkin asks about the procurement investment fund. Crothers laughs nervously (I assume that is him laughing). Crothers says some was used to fund data work (that  certainly wasn’t the purpose when it was first mooted).  He’s suspended it.  Any surplus money returned to Exchequer. I suspect departments like MOD are pretty annoyed about this, they thought their contribution to GPS profit was going to be re-invested in skills, including within their organisation.

Crothers says he’s looking at the whole scope of GPS, should it be a trading fund etc.  “Seems like an odd construct” to have something that makes a £7M profit.  (If departments think that GPS is a cash cow for Cabinet Office that won’t encourage collaborative behaviour, that’s for sure).

Mulholland asks whether the PIF was supposed to be for skills – but most has been used for software, Crothers says.  It was for “improving capability”.

What’s the plan for developing skills, Mulholland asks? Most of opportunity for value is before OJEU and in contract management, Crothers replies, which is a very valid point.  He comes back to negotiating with big suppliers, engagement with market at early stages. Capabilities needs to reflect that, more thought needed. But sounds like this is all very early stages – yet it's over two  years since GPS was formed.

Kelly brings up the Major Projects Authority (MPA). A good story to tell there, although no-one asks about West Coast Rail.  He raises retail procurement – not sure there’s a real read-across there.  Does training go far enough into the civil service asks Mulholland? Crothers says he and the Minister have “plan to go and talk to this year’s fast streamers” and persuade some to come and work in procurement.

That’s a good idea but we need to get better procurement understanding amongst thousands of civil servants, not just 10 fast-streamers a year.  Kelly says civil service dominated by policy still. He’s right. But there is now a commercial competency in the list of civil service competencies now for the first time, Collier points out.

Have you got a register of procurement professionals, asks Jenkin? I get a mention (sort of) -  “that’s one of the points one of the bloggers made” says Crothers. “One of the bloggers”??!

Civil service board has apporved the idea of a central database of procurement professionals. Jenkin thinks it is being made more complicated than it should be. Kelly changes the subject into suppliers not liking what GPS are doing – what’s that got to do with knowing who our procurement people are? Now Kelly just seems to be criticising capability of procurement people.

Jenkin raises D-G of Rail not being a procurement or project person.  Can Cabinet Office influence that sort of thing? We’re working on it, haven’t got a grip of it yet. Trying to define better the role of centre.

We’re back to data – Crothers is exaggerating slightly how little data there was in the centre until recently – there was some work done going back to around 2008, I seem to remember. But he’s right, data has been a big step forward over the last couple of years. Kelly mentions quarterly data report as a useful tool (but I have found it really difficult to make comparisons across departments because of the way the data is published).

You have to know what to do with the data to make insights, says Crothers, and people aren’t used to doing this – that’s a great point.

Kelly says same consultant was charging different day rates to different departments. One company have 30 different rate cards for government. Same company charging different prices, 40-50% different prices to different departments. One contract with 200 separate day rates within one contract! Wow! Hope that’s not Accenture...

We have mid level officials not earning that much, don’t have the confidence to take on the big suppliers and their highly paid staff.  Companies also have better knowledge of their customers. We’re trying to re-dress the balance. MP says it was like this 40 years ago in a Council – officials were out of their depth. (Pay freezes in public sector not exactly helping this, we might note).

Not fair to blame it all on civil servants, says Crothers. The scale, complexity, public scrutiny on the public sector all make it a really hard job, tougher than private sector (agree).  Also we have told them to do job in a certain way, now telling them to do it differently.

(Look out for our final installment soon.)

Voices (4)

  1. MG Man:

    On a lighter note, who are the people on the back row behind the procurement leads? (I hope I’m not offending anyone)

    One is asleep and the others look as if they have lost a pound and found a tenpence!

    1. Helen Lumb:

      MG Man I saw that too and they should be embarrassed and never allowed back especially if it was a so called fast streamer!

    2. life:

      MG Man ha ha ha yes, and likewise who is that guy at the front waving his thumb around at the beginning? Is that his dad next to him trying to dig him out of trouble?

  2. Final Furlong:

    I’ll post a few more comments later but focusing immediately and specifically on the PIF, it’s an absolute crime that Cabinet Office hasn’t (and isn’t) distributing the funds back to the main client groups (like the DH, MOD etc) to invest in procurement skills and capability development initiatives in their respective markets. Procurement staff would actually direct more of their spend through GPS frameworks if they thought (knew) that monies would be reinvested in their professional communities, in increasing capability and capacity. Crothers is shooting himself (and GPS) spectacularly in the foot.

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