Time to Review the Crown Commercial Service’s Strategy ?

With Malcolm Harrison announcing his departure from the Crown Commercial Service in the summer to go and run CIPS, it would seem like a good time to review central government’s collaborative procurement arm.

Most people we have spoken to are sorry to see Harrison go; some have wondered whether he aspired to Gareth Rhys Williams’ job as Government’s Chief Commercial Officer and thought he might stick around and maybe move into that role at some point. After all, Harrison has CEO-type experience, as does Rhys Williams, but has both worked for larger firms and has a lot more direct procurement experience than the current CCO. (As an aside, Rhys Williams has been very low profile of late, including through the Carillion episode – I thought we might see some new analysis or ideas coming out of his area by now?)

For what it’s worth, we don’t think Harrison particularly aspired to that role. Although we thought he conducted himself well on the day, he certainly didn’t think much of the whole Public Accounts Committee experience back in January 2017 and as CCO he might have had to endure more of that type of pain!  And we suspect this was a genuine case of the CIPS job just looking too good to refuse, rather than any great desire to get out of CCS, although we doubt he would have stayed more than perhaps another year or so.

On balance, he leaves CCS a better place than when he took over. Much of his success though is invisible to most outsiders, as he has worked to unwind many of the changes introduced by Bill Crothers and Sally Collier, in particular the “centralisation” of many activities from the departments – activities that should never have gone into CCS in the first place.

He has brought in some strong senior people, recognising that the senior team needed to have real procurement and sourcing expertise, and most critically has improved customer service and internal staff satisfaction, both of which according to the performance data had sunk to worrying lows when he took over.

Development of the “crown marketplace” has been painfully slow but there are some limited successes to talk about there, and initiatives such as the “aggregation events” continue to deliver good results. But there have also been embarrassing failures, such as the management consulting framework, where award of the key “lot” was pulled back in September 2017 - and despite promises of a revised approach by Christmas, the market still waits. Rightly, the Carillion events have not been used as a stick to beat CCS, although they have not done the credibility of central government procurement and Cabinet Office much good generally.

CCS’s relationships with the wider public sector and other collaborative procurement organisations (PBOs) are still mixed; losing Lucy Sydney to Ofqual (to join Sally Collier) was a blow, and PBOs still complain about a lack of continuity in their dealing with CCS and at times a certain arrogance.  CCS still seems torn at times between “doing the right thing” from a strategic, whole-of-the-public-sector perspective, and trying to boost its own sales to hit whatever targets it has been given.

But, as we said earlier, Harrison has all in all done a pretty good job. Now one slightly worrying factor is this. It is hard in all honesty to think of anyone in the procurement world who is likely to do as good a job as him – his combination of general management and procurement skills / background, senior level credibility, good people skills, an innate “political” sense, calmness under pressure … I’m struggling to think of much of a short list to be honest. Maybe it is just a virtually impossible job?

So perhaps this is a good time to review CCS and ask some fundamental questions. Look out for part 2 where we will do just that.

First Voice

  1. Chris Stokes:

    In my view, CCS currently has three functions to perform: policy, procurement and policing. These do not really coexist happily in a single organisation. It is difficult for an organisation to set procurement policy and then be responsible for the procurements, eg CCS “policy” mandating the use of Contingent Labour ONE (or its replacement Public Sector Resourcing) which are frameworks they awarded. It is inappropriate for an organisation responsible for awarding high value public sector wide frameworks to be policed by another part of the same organisation (mystery shopper).

    It would be best to split the organisation into three independent agencies.

    The “policy/strategy agency” should be responsible for deciding how the public sector buys things and acts as an intelligent customer; as part of this they should be looking at best of breed solutions which may or may not be awarded by the “procurement agency”, but they should also be discouraging things like individual contracting authorities from setting up national frameworks when they don’t really know what they are doing.

    The “procurement agency” should be judged far more on their successes, including things like running procurements on time and without challenges (eg heads should roll if they mess up things like the management consultancy framework). They should also not be given the automatic right to run procurements on behalf of central government departments; they should have to demonstrate they can do a better job than the department itself or other procurement organisations.

    The “policing agency” should be given real teeth and not just be allowed to raise concerns with contracting authorities but allowed to require them to make changes when things go wrong.

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