What would you do if you were Bill Crothers, Government’s Chief Procurement Officer?

We’ve been promising for a while now to offer some of our thoughts to Bill Crothers, the new UK Government CPO who was appointed in the summer after John Collington departed for sunnier private sector pastures.

Bill Crothers, UK Government's CPO

As an ex Accenture Partner before his career in government, he probably doesn’t need my advice, and of course it’s always easy chip in from the sidelines when you don’t have to actually do stuff yourself. So I hesitated about whether to write anything at all along these lines, but I think there’s a couple of points here that are at least worthy of some debate. For what’s it’s worth therefore, here is the Spend Matters view – how should Crothers approach this huge and important role? We'll have Part 1 today, part two tomorrow..

1. Get the top CPOs onside – that sounds like obvious advice, but it’s sometimes tempting to think that sitting in “the centre” gives you power over the Departments. As we’ve said before, if it comes to a fight between Francis Maude (Cabinet Office Minister)  and a key Departmental Minster, Maude won’t win. So the CPO has to work with the Departmental  CPOs, not take them on.  And remember, they’re not “Cabinet Office savings”. They’re savings made by Departments, facilitated and assisted by Cabinet Office. Be gracious and give your colleagues praise where it’s due.

2. Take this opportunity to look again at the list of “common categories”  and the overall plan for the collaborative buying initiative. What is the strategy both at overall and at category level? We’ve been supportive of the general thrust behind this work, and it’s too late to totally change course on this now even if you wanted to. But the ConsultancyONE experience and delays should indicate a need to question whether the mega-contract (or framework) is really going to be the best way to go in all cases. And you yourself queried in the press whether frameworks really deliver best value – so a good time to review the approach.

3. The “top suppliers” work has, as far as we can tell, been worthwhile and has had some success. But it is so opaque – the lack of any suppliers’ issuing profit warnings or statements to investors has created some cynicism about what is really happening here. There needs to be some way of better and more convincingly communicating what is being achieved here, without breaching commercial confidentiality where that is truly necessary.

4. From a philosophical point of view, I would like to see the CPO taking some role in promoting better procurement across the wider public sector (local government, health etc). Cabinet Office have pretty much washed their hands of this which seems a shame. But frankly, I don’t see this happening, and being very honest, if I was in Crothers’ shoes, I don’t think I’d take it on. It is a thankless task and he’s not resourced to do it properly. It just seems disappointing that we have no-one who in any sense owns that overall objective of improving procurement performance more widely.

And on Thursday, we’ll have some suggestions around re-focusing (somewhat at least) the whole thrust of the Cabinet Office procurement work...

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Voices (2)

  1. Watcher of the Skies:

    Seriously unimpressed with Crothers’ speech at the CIPS conference last week.

    All I heard was ‘the new guy’ behaving like his predecessors’ efforts are barely worth mentioning, and that he didn’t. His assertion that government didn’t know who its biggest suppliers were is surely bogus. Apparently all it needed to solve that little problem was a whiteboard and Crothers holding up a marker pen. Oh really?

    Futhermore, we were treated to the Crothers’ strategic approach to procurement and, if you like, ‘value management’: get the suppliers in, confront them with their accounting practice misdemeanours, and ask them to write a cheque, and BOOM! The savings roll-in!

    Then attack demand management to reduce expenditure. Fine, and….?

    We heard Crothers wax lyrical about his four priorities: ‘money’, ‘performance’, ‘reform’ (lean procurement) and ‘people capability’. Nothing revolutionary here. Nor was there anything about what that actually meant in practice.

    There certainly wasn’t a compelling vision of how things were going to different; new practices, radical change in the way departments and the centre were going to work, procurement commitment to expcitly focus on impacting the citizen experience of government services – a more strategic agenda.

    It all reeked of a cat that got the cream: big career, big job, beat-up the suppliers for a few years, try and influence departmental co-operation, and then wander off into the sunset, leaving the ‘next guy’ to take his (or her) place on the conference platform and deliver their own version of TACTICAL procurement.

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