New Minister Matt Hancock – there’s “more to do” on UK Government Procurement

We continue our analysis of the new UK government as we try and work out what it might mean for Crown Commercial Services (CCS) and public procurement in general. Matt Hancock, the new Minister for Procurement (as it were), and Francis Maude’s successor, made his first major speech on May 22 to the Institute for Government, with the topic of civil service reform.

He made some interesting points generally, including these highlights.

  • He wants staff to have “freedom to fail” – to encourage civil servants to take risks (now where have we heard that before?).
  • There was some good staff around Digital, for instance the new government identify verification system “Verify.”
  • He wants to encourage more “working class” applicants onto the civil service fast stream and make the civil service more representative of society.

But our key area of interest is procurement of course, so what did he say about that? Here is the only relevant extract.

Treasury and the Cabinet Office are working ever more closely together, from reviewing and assuring major projects to improving our management of public service markets. The task now is to continue – indeed to accelerate – these efforts, making sure the centre is truly working in support of departments’ success. When a challenge is too large or complex for a department to tackle alone, we need to be there. When outcomes could be improved by government acting as one rather than many, we need to be there. When cross-departmental collaboration matters, it is our job to coordinate.

So the Major Projects Authority is bringing capability to project management.

The Government Property Unit is revolutionising the use of property.

Famously, GDS is leading the world in making real the benefits to citizens offered by digital: the biggest revolution of our times.

We have made progress on commercial skills and procurement, though there’s more to do.

Our Fraud Error and Debt team is well placed to improve performance on these, so taxpayers money goes where it should, and debts are collected in a joined-up way.

So, not exactly a stunning endorsement of procurement progress there. All the other areas are mentioned positively, but the fact that he did not mention CCS at all must raise some questions. Other "central" bodies such as GDS and MPA get their moment in the Hancock sun, but not CCS.

And "there's more to do" - not a great vote of confidence in procurement or Bill Crothers really. If I had been in a CPO role for over three years and the best my boss could say is something like that, then I might just want to get out and talk to the head-hunters.

But as an answer to one of the questions he was asked after his speech, he said this:

“The question is not whether there should be a system of tight and loose. The question is what should be in each category. There are functions like commercial services and procurement where it is very clear it is better procured centrally... But increasingly policymaking is cross-departmental too."

So that doesn't sound like centralised procurement is going to be abandoned either (and of course it shouldn’t be). But it feels like we need a more nuanced approach now, and I just hope, that as a man with two economics degrees, Hancock thinks about economies of scale, transaction costs and market effects  rationally and understands that it is NOT “always clear” that everything should be “procured centrally.”

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