The big debate – Commissioning or Procurement – but does it matter? (Part 2)

We wrote yesterday about the procurement or commissioning debate in the UK public sector, and suggested it really doesn't matter for many stakeholders, including recipients of the services being commissioned / procured. But it does matter for some people and organisations. Why?

Because, whatever anyone might say, commissioning is going to look like a more attractive career option for most bright, ambitious folk coming into the public sector than procurement. It’s got that direct responsibility and ownership side to it whereas procurement will be increasingly seen as a support function.

I asked Sally Collier of Cabinet Office, who is responsible amongst other things for developing the new Commissioning Academy, whether she thought a fast stream graduate would rather go into commissioning or procurement. She thought that being at the forefront of public service delivery, doing interesting challenging work, with a promotion route, was what they wanted. And neither commissioning nor procurement has a monopoly on these opportunities, she pointed out.

That’s well put, and I know what she means, but I still think commissioning – having budget and that direct responsibility for outcomes – sounds sexier. I’d love to ask 50 fast streamers and see what they say.

So, looking at the potential losers from this, it is bad news for CIPS, which explains David Noble’s strong and brave line we reported here. But while I sympathise with his view, I don’t think it is feasible to say that every commissioning role must be filled by a procurement professional, and it may be a better approach for CIPS to acknowledge that and focus on providing some of the training needed for these commissioners - and by all means offer them the chance to see themselves as procurement pros if that's what they want.

But how long before we see the Institute for Commissioning, or Society for Public Commissioners set up? It is only a matter of time. (Indeed, perhaps CIPS should take the lead on that as a defensive strategic measure?)

The other group for whom this is bad news is existing procurement people in the public sector – excluding those at the most senior levels. For these people, they risk seeing their profession pushed into this back office role, with the glory and focus switching to commissioners. For those who have been through years of CIPS education, that may feel somewhat galling.

However, there is an obvious answer to this. Commissioners will come from a number of different backgrounds, and certainly some will be procurement professionals looking to use their core skills in a slightly different role.  If I was an ambitious young procurement professional, I’d definitely be looking at this option.

How about the wider procurement profession? Will this have any impact? Not for some time to come, and perhaps never. But I guess the possibility that carries some risk is procurement becoming less respected in the public sector, and some of that eventually rubbing off on the private sector. Budget holders and other stakeholders might look to relegate procurement to a back office "technical function” (as the Civil Service Reform Plan describes it) rather than the strategically critical area we like to think we’re working in.

But I suspect the risk of that happening is far more linked to other factors, such as how procurement handles a number of other current and coming challenges, rather than purely a knock-on effect from the commissioning debate.

And on that note, we'll leave the topic for now, but refer you to an excellent and relevant piece by David Atkinson on his blog here, which we'll discuss at greater length shortly.


Share on Procurious

Voices (7)

  1. Ian Heptinstall:

    Yeh, strange that isnt it?…..

  2. Stephen Heard:

    Well the big 5 management consultancies seem to think their is a difference as they are peddling the Commissioning Circle to the NHS which looks remarkably like the Category Management circle that they peddled in central government a few years ago. They certainly get embarrassed when any one in the audience questions the difference as I did when moving from what was Buying Solutions to the NHS and had to sit through a presentation on World Class Commissioning.

  3. Ian Heptinstall:

    Thanks Gordon, for me, coming from the private-sector, that helps clarify.

    As you point out, the terms we use in our profession mean different things to different people. In many leading private-sector procurement organisations, “strategic procurement”, aligns more with your definition of “commisioning” than “procurement”. We use this difference often with clients to highlight the fundamental difference between a strategic (or category management) approach and a more tactical approach to procurement.

    I guess if the commisioning organisation and roles also are accountable for monitoring and improving the performance of in-house delivered services as well as outsourced, then I agree it is a separate activity, of which procurement is only the outsourced variant. I dont know enough to see if this is the case. However, all the “commissioning cycle” diagrams I have seen, only imply the monitor/evaluate/review is to do with suppliers, and that this feeds back to stage 1

    What it is called doesnt matter much. What does matter is consistency of approach (methods, language, people), because many suppliers/categories will not fit within our neat internal boundaries. The other pragmatic reason are those I mentioned above – control and wasted effort. Even if exisiting procurement staff in govenment dont have the broader skills to work in commissioning, that doesn mean the wider profession does not.

    As you say Gordon what matters is if our professional knowhow if contributed to the process. That takes two requirements – our willingness to contribute, and also a willingness to learn from and listen to what we bring (on the part of whomever is running the process). It is that latter that I get the impression isnt happening much (anyone who knows better, please correct me). A quick glance at a few documents & NHS job adverts, finds no reference to CIPS at all

    I only debate here as a tax payer. If it wasnt my money being spent it would be just an interesting case study!


  4. Dr Gordy:

    Hi Peter, thanks for the debate. I wrote a debate piece on the same subject some years ago in Journal of Purchasing & Supply Management – I can send a copy of the paper to anyone interested. Anyway, I argued that procurement sits within commissioning, and purchasing sits within procurement. Here’s a link to the 2008 ppt which accompanied the paper:

    I do not believe procurement has anything to fear from that view unless procurement buried its head in the sand and fails to make a meaningful contribution.

    BTW there is an Institute of Commissioning Professionals

    1. Edward Vera-Cruz:

      I would be interested in receiving a copy of the paper to which you refer. Thanks

  5. Sam Unkim:

    Certainly sounds as though the debate is finished in the NHS.

    See the recent – Procurement review call for evidence

    “Actions at national level in the NHS – What specific actions do you think national NHS bodies, such as the NHS National Commissioning Board, need to take to transform procurement across the NHS? “

  6. Ian Heptinstall:

    Am I missing something in this debate? Is the government planning to make budget holders accountable for selection and contracting decisions? What about basic fiduciary controls where the roles of purse strings and contracting are never given to one person to reduce the risk of fraud? I guesss they might be planning a group of professional “comissioning” experts who are skilled in leading cross-functional teams, selection and contracting of complex services, and shaping supply markets, but who are separate from the budget holder/subject matter expert. Mmmmmm …. sounds a familar job description.

    The private sector does have exactly the same distinction – direct & indirect, and several variants within these for goods & services which directly touch customers, and/or replace activities once done in-house. However, I know of no leading private sector procurement organisation that puts a solid divide between the two (I know many who do separate them, but non that I would say are world-class procurement examples). Yes, within the organisation you will have specialists, but they are part of a single managed whole.

    What I havent heard is either (i) that commissioning is substantially different from any other complex category or (ii) why it needs to be addressed outside of the existing procurement structure

    Procurement is about buying in whatever the organiation needs to fulfil its role. Giving sub-sets of this a separate name and pretending it is not procurement always stuck me as at best inefficient and a waste of energy.

    It also indicates to me something is wrong. Either there is a large but unspoken lack of confidence in the procurement organisation’s ability, or some other, possibly murky, reason “to keep procurement’s nose out of this”. And neither of these problems will go away by treating this sub-set of procurement in a different, independent way to other categories.

    What is the root cause problem for the perceived need to treat commissioning separately, and how will the proposed actions remove the problem, rather than just trying to circumvent it?


    PS – I guess construction procurement (2nd largest public “mega-category” according to Future Purchaing/Henly) has already gone UDI. Although there are procurement professionals involved, I didnt notice any visible acknowledgement of it as part of the procurement reforms at Monday’s Governement Construciton Summit. Plenty of lawyers & QS’s, not a CIPS mention in sight.

Discuss this:

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.