14 Commercial Standards for Government (but CatMan Ain’t One)

I was reading the new Commercial Standards for Government issued by the Cabinet Office recently, and a number of things struck me. (Incidentally, they were not exactly launched with a big fanfare and are pretty difficult to find unless you know where to look)! They cover four phases of the end to end procurement cycle – Strategy,  Pre-procurement, Procurement and Contract management.

There is much to be praised within the list of 14 standards, and nothing much we would actively disagree with, but there are a couple of omissions. We might describe them as surprising were it not for the fact that they have been blind spots for public procurement for years.

The first is the lack of a strategic category management focus. Now, to start with a positive, the UK government is certainly looking at suppliers in a more joined up way, with the Crown Commercial Representatives keeping an eye on major suppliers, for instance. But there is little sense in these 14 principles that there should be some over-arching strategy for major categories.

Instead, there seems to be almost an underlying assumption that procurement is a series of independent commercial transactions, handled sequentially. Now we could argue about whether categories in the government context should be considered at total public sector level, sectoral, regional or other sub-division, and that is another whole discussion. But some recognition of the need for some category thinking within the 14 would have been useful, to say the least. It is hard to see how procurement can be properly “joined-up” (a phrase which is used in the document) without this.

The other area – which we identified as a blind spot years ago – is around supplier selection and evaluation processes. It is good to see so much more focus on “early market engagement” and the work that should be done before a formal procurement process is launched. And as the lead author of the 2007 NAO contract management good practice model, I'm pleased to see continuing strong focus on that phase of the end to end procurement cycle.

However, actually running the tendering and supplier selection process is now underplayed, and barely mentioned in the principles. The only real link is via a couple of references to “Lean”. But, as we pointed out in 2012, the government’s Lean procurement principles contained some good material, but seemed to just skirt around evaluation – either it was in the “too difficult” bucket or was wrongly seen as not worth considering as a major issue.

Yet this is the part of the procurement process where most legal challenges come from. It is the process that determines which supplier wins the work, and most of the lousy supplier choices that contracting authorities have made over time probably came down to a flawed evaluation process. So it would have been good to see more on that, or at least some mention of its importance, in the 14 principles.

Anyway, the principles are essential reading for public sector procurement folk of course and actually will provide some interesting pointers for private sector too. We will also be covering the principles in more detail on our Public Spend Matters Europe site shortly, so look out for that too.

Voices (4)

  1. Final Furlong:

    The point you make about supplier selection and evaluation processes Peter might be related to Bill’s promotion (then Sally’s) of the ‘DNA’ of Goverment procurement – that the competition itself doesn’t generate much value – all of the value extraction occurs before or after the competition. While this may true in the context of measuring comparable value (there is MORE value to be extracted before and after), it is also true to say that high standards must be recognised and maintained throughout. I recall when the DNA model first emerged – to the Crown Commercial Service, and Bill and Sally, it was a revelation – but to seasoned practitioners, it was blindingly bloody obvious.

  2. DrGordy:

    I don’t think a fanfare was required as nothing particularly new is said, which makes me ask, why they bothered even publishing them? Much more interesting will be whether the NAO, PAC or PASC use them as a benchmark during future inquiries and calling to account.

  3. Nick Hanson:

    Is the lack of Strategic Category Management focus because the people at the top and the people they have appointed do not have sufficient experience and knowledge of it to realise its importance and potential?

    1. Final Furlong:

      Yep

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