CCS Consulting Framework – What Lies Behind The Procurement Strategy?

We highlighted the publication of the Crown Commercial Services Management Consultancy tender (“MCF2”) recently here. CCS is setting up four “lots” to cover a range of consulting requirements, and there have been a few negative comments around the design of the process; for instance, the lack of real price competition in the tender design. So we did a bit of digging around, talked to a couple of people we know who understand CCS pretty well, did some thinking …  and have some potential explanations in terms of the logic behind the procurement.

The first point is that CCS has to meet the needs of the central departments and related bodies that it serves, particularly since those users are now mandated to use CCS. In the consulting space, for sectors such as high-powered strategic advice, that means satisfying the needs of top civil servants and indeed Ministers. So while we might feel that smaller, less expensive firms could do much of this work – but when we’re talking mission-critical consulting support in highly sensitive areas (Brexit, for example), it is probably inevitable that the users will at the very least expect to see the big firms on the list as potential providers.

At the same time, CCS is trying to meet the government’s policy goals around smaller firms (SMEs). So it wants to have also some mechanism that enables small firms to get onto the framework and have a chance of winning work. That also means the bidding process can’t be too onerous, otherwise SMEs just won’t bother.

Hence the design of these lots. Two are unlimited in number, modelled really on G-Cloud in that suppliers meet a qualification threshold but aren’t really assessed against each other. Then lots 3 and 4 ask for experience of major programmes and assignments, are somewhat limited in membership (although up to 30 is still a pretty large number of providers for a lot) and have more of a real selection-type assessment, which is clearly designed to favour the larger firms.

So CCS achieves its aim of having a route to engage the “big boys” for those who want them; but also offers the chance of perhaps hundreds of smaller firms having at least a presence on the framework. (Whether they win any work is another question, probably for another day).

Then there is this question of the lack of price competition. Well, we all know that obtaining the best value from multiple supplier frameworks requires vital work to take place at the call-off stage i.e. when the actual choice of provider is made. So our take on it is that CCS has recognised this, and is not trying to get market-leading pricing at this first stage.

Rather, the real value will be established (we all hope) by and through the second stage selection – where users can also perhaps define clear outputs and follow all the other best practice principles for professional services engagement (see “Buying Professional Services”, Czerniawska and Smith!)

There are also other constraints on CCS and indeed any public buyer when it comes down to the process. The “quality” questions in the tender need to be forward looking, so the reliance on past experience that most private sector buyers might use in selecting consultants is not easy to achieve here. So the “quality” assessment for the two unlimited lots here is pretty limited – again, this suggests that the second stage of the procurement process and the service filter is where the real work needs to be done.

I am also told that CCS engaged with the market throughout the planning process, and no-one came up with anything better than what we see in this tender. (I do know from experience that suppliers will sometimes moan about process, but getting real, workable ideas from them – “well you come up with something better” - is not always easy!)

So, perhaps this explains to some degree the design of the competition – and we can see the logic. However, as we said, this puts a lot of focus on that second stage, and we understand CCS is planning to put major effort into getting this right. There will also need to be effective supplier performance management, so that will be another priority for the organisation.

But the team shouldn’t under-estimate the size of the education task; in our experience, there just isn’t a lot of expertise out there in terms of consultancy buying. The risks are that the framework is used improperly, or users just choose their “favourite” supplier, just accept headline pricing, and work on time and materials when assignments should be output based.

So the most important point is that CCS will need to engage closely with buyers and budget holders in central government – and also potential framework users in the wider public sector – to encourage best practice at the call-off stage. That must mean considering issues including demand management, how to define clear specifications, how to select the best firm, using the right commercial models (including performance related fees where appropriate), the importance of outcomes and outputs, and so on. Achieving understanding amongst the user base of these issues will ultimately determine whether “MCF2” delivers value for the taxpayer – so we wish CCS luck and success in that.

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Voices (5)

  1. Benjamin Taylor:

    We are considering doing a live / recorded Webinar to go through the problems with Crown Commercial Services Tender of Management Consultancy Framework 2 (and the rest) and discuss strategy – email if you’d like to join.

  2. Dan:

    Isn’t this a consequence of CCS being too big (at least in terms of remit, rather than resources)?

    Its supposed to be the mandated buying organisation on behalf of gov departments and NDPBs, and also has to accommodate the requirements of the wider public sector, in case they also want to use the frameworks. They also have to promulgate procurement policy objectives set by the powers that be (who want something they can point to in order to prove how they are making a difference, but not something they care about to the extent they need to do actual work on it themselves). Naturally, CCS need to show how they themselves are meeting those policy objectives. It seems, to me, to be a case of failing to please all the people all the time.

    I think the CCS needs to stop trying to be all things to all people and concentrate on areas where it can truly add value. I won’t hold my breath though, because that would depend on politicians and senior civil servants understanding those areas.

  3. Charlie Middleton:

    As per my post at, it is clear that CCS’s claim to be SME-friendly and wanting 20% of work to go to SMEs is just a fallacy. There are problems right across this framework.

    On Lots 1 and 2 as Benjamin’s document shows the whole strategy of allowing everyone on the framework with no consideration of quality creates huge problems for customers wanting to engage consultancies properly, as they could easily get 200+ suppliers who could do, say, project management in central London and they would have to assess bids from all of them. So this will be too much hassle, and they will therefore either exclude most of them through service filters (eg you have to have supplied project management specifically in that department), or through (illegally) looking at the references supplied of past work and choosing based on that. Or they will just ignore all notion of choosing suppliers fairly and use the direct award option, which will be totally uncontrolled by CCS and allow them to pick their friends from a list. CCS refused in the clarifications to explain how direct award would actually work in practice to stop this happening, so you know it will.

    On Lots 3 and 4, CCS does not even try to hide that these are not SME friendly. The requirement for two £5m case studies completely within the past 18 months on Lot 3 is especially unreasonable, as the number of actual assignments that will go through the lot at this value is tiny. Also their refusal to put a floor on assignments on these lots means that these will just become a route for customers to use when they want to avoid SMEs and work with the big firms, even if it is just for a £100k assignment as long as they claim it is complex (and again CCS will do nothing to police this). Putting a £1m (or ideally £3m) floor on Lot 3 (and perhaps £500k on Lot 4) would mean these could not be used unfairly as a route to stop work going to SMEs that they could easily do. But CCS has no interest in supporting SMEs and every interest in supporting the Big 4 firms (and it is strongly speculated that the reason Lot 1 on the original framework was pulled was because the Big 4 did not get on it).

    CCS spent months thinking about this framework, but it seems they only actually took account or feedback from Big 4 firms on how to structure this to make it work for them. This framework has been a shambles from start to finish.

  4. Secret Squirrel:

    And herein lies the problem for much of CCS’s operations.

    1) What it can offer is constrained by the requirements (perceived or real) of its stakeholders and the need to do something which simultaneously supports policy objectives that are, essentially, small scale industrial policy.
    2) To meet those objectives, it generally creates open ended (or at least wide ended) framework agreements. These don’t in and of themselves create value. They provide some simplicity to procurement but not a lot more.
    3) The value creation therefore lies in the call-off. But that’s either department led or ‘managed service’ led. If the latter is done by CCS’s category teams, they are generally not close enough to understand the specific problem. If its done by a shared service centre, they don’t understand the category enough to drive the value and if it’s department led, you’ve got closeness but not enough expertise in the area and not enough CCS involvement to justify CCS’s scale.

    For me, a narrower CCS focussed on creating the ‘policy driven’ procurement mechanisms combined with a procurement consulting service to support departmental implementation is a more sustainable approach. It’s smaller, more focussed and customer considerate.

    I really hope they get a leader who can drive a change that pushes those aspects, irrespective of whether they choose that approach or not.

  5. Benjamin Taylor:

    That’s a useful apologia, thank you. I’m sorry to say that it won’t satisfy those SMEs who understand the government market and it reveals a very strong lack of understanding. It would be good to see a counter view.

    I’ve been collating the complaints about the framework here:

    I’m sorry that we were too busy delivering public service work to respond to the engagement – because it would be *very easy* to come up with better, indeed it would be hard to come up with worse.

    The simple point is that, if not excluded, SMEs and others who are not currently big suppliers can compete and hold their own in this market – the paradigmatic separation of ‘the big four’ and ‘the SMEs’ revealed in this piece points to the problem – CCS seems to hold a number of negative self-fulfilling prophecies.

    Reliance on educating buyers will not satisfy SMEs (just look at the comments to my twitter and linkedin postings) and some will just give up on central government if this continues.

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