The End of an Era – Looking Back at Bill Crothers’ Time as the UK Government’s Chief Commercial Officer (Part 4)

(Continuing our reflections on Bill Crothers'  time as the UK Government’s Chief Commercial Officer; part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and part 3 is here).

The conversation then turned to any regrets that Crothers feels - or anything he might do differently next time?  It's clear from his response that he has thought deeply about Crown Commercial Services and the programme to centralise much of central government's procurement in particular. That is not surprising given even current senior managers in that organisation are publicly acknowledging that not all is well with the approach that has been taken.

He explains the process by which CCS was formed, and stresses that this was a political policy decision to centralise procurement of common goods and services. The previous organisations in this space - GPS and OGC  - did have a reputation for being primarily "framework factories", so that had to change in order to offer real managed services provision to the client organisations.

But then the programme sank into years of debate and often push-back from the departments who were uneasy about handing over much of their common goods and services procurement. Francis Maude told the story of losing his temper at one meeting, where he told the departmental procurement heads they were "ignoring the decision of a Cabinet Committee!" But it was - and is - a very complicated picture. Some of the objections were, in Crothers' eyes, about creating  FUD - fear uncertainty and doubt . The reasons given for retaining local control were perhaps exaggerated at times - "we were told that if you centralise this spend, people may die!"

Having finally worn down the departments, and got their agreement, Crothers admits that not enough thought was put into the key issues around capability and change management - unfortunately, it became a case of "be careful what you wish for", he says very honestly.

“Once all was agreed by senior management, it was still not straightforward. For example, we faced a lack of good quality data, ambiguity over responsibilities, and some ongoing resistance to change. That all  made the task extremely difficult, as did the need to have different capability within CCS”.

(Separately to this discussion, we were recently told by insiders that there were also cases where departments, having given up fighting to retain work, perhaps took the opportunity to transfer some of their less attractive or more difficult activities to CCS!)

This was perhaps where Crothers' lack of deep, specialist procurement experience did not help; he under-estimated the size and complexity of the task, and now wishes he had spent more time at an earlier stage getting closer to the issues and understanding them better. "I should have realised sooner that the effort needed and the change required was greater than I expected".

A further  point that we didn't really discuss in detail, but we believe has been a real issue for CCS, is that the benefits of economies of scale have been consistently over-estimated. That comes from Ministers' views sometimes, and the wider public  and media too - "buying in bulk, get a better deal" is such a simple concept that anyone can understand it. Unfortunately it is simply not true for much of what government buys! Again, perhaps because of Crothers' background, and that of some of the other CCS leadership, that point was perhaps not understood well enough. In our view, as CCS moves forwards, more sophisticated strategies are still needed if the organisation is to prove itself.

(We will be back with the final part tomorrow).

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