CIPS can’t be the solution to public procurement if it’s the problem

When I saw that David Noble, the CIPS CEO, had published a new article on the CIPS website on public sector procurement, I wondered if he would at last be defending the profession against the criticism – some deserved, some not – it has received from politicians and media. The Times the other week was the last to have a go, with a few rent a quote comments from politicians about the “lack of professionalism” in public procurement and other such nonsense.

So I was disappointed that Noble continued in the main with the line that we've seen before – which is pretty much to agree that public procurement is rubbish, but then to offer the prospect that CIPS can help address that. Here he is, on the CIPS website.

So where does the fault lie? The finger is being pointed at a lack of commercial skills among those placing and managing contracts, and at supplier relationships which have been allowed to get too cosy. Is this really fair?  Well, it’s probably a big part of the story. CIPS has long been urging the Government to adopt professional standards and to place a higher value on the role of professional procurement.  Unless public procurement can show its commitment to raising standards, it will continue to be seen as the private sector’s poor relation, however unfair that might be”.

My highlighting. So, Noble believes the problem is “lack of commercial skills amongst those placing contracts” who would, in the main, be CIPS members. To be fair, he does go on in his piece to say things like, "let’s stop the ‘private sector good, public sector bad’ generalisation". But you get the feeling he does believe that public procurement is pretty poor in general.

Now, there are at least three positions CIPS could take in this debate. And note this has to be Noble and the executives – I don’t expect the President to be speaking on these matters for instance, as the volunteers all have their own jobs and must put those  first.  That’s why members fund significant salaries for the top CIPS Execs; to speak on our behalf.

So, three potential positions are:

  1. Public procurement is fine, stop unfairly criticising the profession and our members, problems are systemic and little to do with “procurement” in the professional sense.
  2. The problems are way beyond the professional procurement community, much of the criticism is unfair, but we acknowledge that professional skills can be improved further – CIPS and other stakeholders need to work to achieve that.
  3. We agree, procurement in the public sector is rubbish but don't worry, CIPS will sort it out.

Personally, I would choose option 2 as a sensible, pragmatic (and, I would argue, accurate) assessment. But CIPS appears to be pursuing option 3. As well as being inaccurate in my opinion, it seems harsh on the thousands of CIPS members who do a very good job in the public sector.

And CIPS needs to be very careful here, because this argument has one other major logical flaw.

A high proportion of public sector procurement staff are MCIPS – probably higher than in the private sector. That is driven in part by the salary supplements often paid to members. But by agreeing that the profession is not good enough in the public sector, that would suggest that historic (at least) CIPS education and training is not good enough. Has CIPS trained people to fail in the public sector? (Not my view, but you could take this as the logical corollary of Noble’s statements).

The only other logical deduction could be that it is the non-CIPS members in public procurement who cause all the problems – but I don’t think that stands up to any scrutiny. The MOD for instance, considered the apotheosis of public procurement failure by the media (not by me), has, I was once told by a senior MOD person, more CIPS members than any other organisation in the world.

So if the end result of 80 years of CIPS, and its forerunners, working actively in the public sector, is a professional cadre that is not up to scratch, then how should things be moved forward?   I don't see how CIPS can have it both ways.

If CIPS is going to agree with those who knock public procurement, then the solution can't logically be MORE CIPS to solve the problem.

Me – I go for position 2. A much more robust defence of CIPS and our members, whilst acknowledging that we can always do better. I'd also want CIPS to be looking hard at education and training, which I think it regularly does in my experience, to make sure it is meeting the changing needs of all sectors. We could be more responsive without a doubt.

And, if  CIPS isn’t going to defend its members against the media, politicians and others who want to rubbish our competence, perhaps someone else will?

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Voices (10)

  1. Final Furlong:

    I’ve met many public sector procurement folk over the last two decades – some of been extraordinary, while many have been quite ordinary. Sorry to say it, but that’s my view, based upon meeting hundreds of them.

    The vast majority have been CIPS qualified (as you say Peter, as a result, they often get paid more for doing much of the same…). Notably, sadly, the CIPS qualification wasn’t a key differentiator between the two (extraordinary versus ordinary). A range of other key factors often made the difference.

    On the topic of Mr Noble et al; the relationship that he’s developing/established with Mr Collington should be more transparent. One hopes that some of the initiatives that they’re socialising/developing together (such as the exclusive ‘academy’, for example?) is worth it in the long term…

  2. Dan2:

    Re: the comment “It is really about leadership, culture & incentive.” from David Orr – this really hits the nail on the head.

    It is generally the budget holder/programme lead who takes the decision on what to sign off (with procurement as advisor). While the situation remains that the person in charge is rewarded on metrics related to delivery on time or meeting 100% of customer needs (with cost relegated someway down the list) there will continue to be overspends/poor performance.

    Unless CIPS has a module on ‘changing internal culture/incentives’ we can do as much training as we like. It won’t change a thing.

    Take collaboration across government – if it isn’t incorporated into people’s work objectives it will remain a ‘nice to have’. Something buyers recognise as a ‘good thing’ but ultimately the day job will take priority as that is what they are rewarded on.

  3. David Orr:

    Peter, PRINCE was no guarantee of successful projects and neither will CIPS be a guarantee of successful procurement savings.

    It is really about leadership, culture & incentive.

    The private sector contractors pay loads more for top sales people & successful negotiatiors, who are incentivised for short term annual gain in commisions and target-based earnings.Not much incentive for long-term relations in that culture is there?

    The public sector pays a lot less and uses organisation-wide pay scales, with little differentiation in pay between mediocrity and high achievement.

    It is public money with democratic oversight (and local media reporting of any problems), so it quite naturally tends to focus on governance, structure & process to support public accountability & transparency.

    In Somerset, the leads in the ISiS project (that led to the controversial SW1 joint venture with IBM) had no professional qualifications in project management, procurement or accountancy. They had an admin background, so the project professionals were in an advisory role to them.

    They were driven politically by a CEO who wanted us in contract within 11 months (it took 2.5 years and still went pear shaped); he had an eye to a “unique cross-sectoral joint venture – first of its kind etc” perhaps leading to an OBE or knighthood?

    Somerset entered into a complex long-term contract with fuzzy requirements (“a strategic partenership” “transformation” “world class IT” “beyond excellence”) and then entered waters in which highly paid & highly incentivised “professional sharks” (from IBM) swam.

    Officers who had never conducted negotiations for a £400m 10-year contract before, together with Councillors who in the main had local business or public sector service backgrounds, were then up against an IBM Global deal closing team. Predictable result.

    Before any money was saved by IBM/SW1, SOPO gave the structures and process (“category management”) an award:!!/xmlid=125382

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – as they do say in France.

  4. Watcher of the Skies:

    Such a lazy comment from Noble. The problem is clearly systemic. It’s not the lack of commercial acumen of CIPS members; rather the apparent lack of it amongst specifiers and senior stakeholders who still don’t see the public finances as belonging to anyone in particular, control of which is ‘someone else’s job’.

    Something has happened along the way. Originally CIPS was there to serve its members; now it feels like its members (and their bosses) are there to be sold to.

    I’m beginning to wonder whether the CIPS executive are bonused on sales of training courses and increased membership numbers in China, Africa and Australia. I’d like to see them bonused, before anything else, on achieving 50%+ of UK CPOs securing CIPS membership on merit.

    1. Phoenix:

      I completely agree with Watcher of the Skies. If we are wrong about this, and we are missing the point about the CEO’s working relationship with Government, then perhaps he could write to us all to explain his strategy.

      One other thing. Historically, I’ve admired CIPS’s political neutrality. Past CEOs were very careful about protecting it. But just recently, speakers of a given political persuasion have popped up at CIPS events – Michael Portillo at the President’s Dinner two years ago and now former Conservative MP Matthew Parris is the speaker at this year’s CIPS Annual Dinner. I know both are pursuing careers in the media rather than politics now, but there’s a danger that CIPS could be seen to be losing its strength through neutrality.

  5. Dr Gordy:

    I think your blog on this is spot on Pete. Rather than CIPS’ CX shooting from the hip and actually hitting members it would have been better to have paused for thought, carried out some research and identifed what the members think. It seems there’s a complete lack of consultation with members on position statements like this and any form of evidence base.
    Perhaps if more time were spent on UK interests as opposed to world domination gaffs like this would be significantly less one.

  6. Gerry Palmer:

    I believe that CIPS have failed to fully understand the needs of its members in the public sector for a while now. From a local government perspective, it would be true to say that few ever attend CIPS training courses. They are usually 50% more expensive than comparable offerings and are not always as relevant. Given reduced budgets CIPS training programmes are not considered to be a viable option.

    As you have highlighted this is a real opportunity for CIPS to make a significant contribution to the development of the profession in the public sector. They need to step up to this challenge to make CIPS more accessible and relevant to their current and potential membership.

    To quote Kevin Costner ; “If you build it they will come”

  7. Dan:

    Or perhaps, more likely, people are failing to distinguish between knowledge and skills. Learning the stuff that CIPS teaches you is one thing. Being able to put into practice is another thing entirely.

  8. Dan:

    Perhaps because people spend years and hundreds of pounds gettting their CIPS diploma and then go to work and carry on doing things the same way they’ve always done.

  9. bitter and twisted:

    Nah. The CIPS qualifications are boring, only semi-relevant, and overpriced.

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