Civil Service Reform Plan and an extraordinary statement about procurement

The Civil Service Reform Plan was published this week by the UK Government. Promoted by the Minster for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, and Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service, it is somewhat jargon ridden but contains a mixture of good sense, hopeful exhortation and the odd bit of nonsense.

I’m very cynical about the measures on performance management; as we’ve pointed out before, sacking the bottom 10% of staff (by performance) just won’t happen. And requiring top mandarins to have experience of delivery and operational roles, not purely policy, as they rise up the civil service – I swear I’ve heard that from the last three governments at least. William the Conqueror probably said the same about his Barons.

But then we did a search on “procurement” in the document and came across a paragraph that made me go “WHAT”?  A literally jaw-dropping comment.

We’re going to discuss this in more depth next week, so let’s just leave you with it for now. Maybe I’m over-reacting in saying I find this extraordinary. But what do you make of this statement?

“ The move towards commissioning of services means many more public servants, not least in central government, need skills in managing markets, negotiating and agreeing contracts, and contract management. A new Commissioning Academy will be set up in 2013 to provide these skills to the whole public sector. This is separate from and alongside the drive to improve procurement practices. Procurement is a separate technical profession which must support commissioners but not replace them, just as HR teams support line managers but do not replace them”.


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Voices (12)

  1. Mark Hubbard:

    A couple of parallel thoughts on this: firstly, would the acquisition of services by ‘lay’ purchasers be much different than it is now; how much government spend actually goes through high quality sourcing activities now? Secondly, there is a train of thought that once an organisation is consciously competent, there should be a dispersal of certain skills ( like highly competent purchasing) back into the organisation – although it could be argued that the step is being taken too early in this case! I’ll be watching developments and debate with interest.

  2. TimBya:

    I have no interest in entering into demarcation disputes but the suggestion that “skills in managing markets, negotiating and agreeing contracts, and contract management” is separate from procurement which is “a separate technical profession” is frightening! I put it all down to Philip Green and his suggestion that we don’t know how to buy photocopier paper.

    What have our Government CPO, CIPS President and others been saying to the Minister I wonder, but on reflection, much of what the Government Procurement Services is doing is about piling them high, buying them cheap and doing it in 120 days, so perhaps we are getting what we deserve.
    The profession has for years being trying to drag itself up the evolutionary path from transactional to strategic and here we are scrapping our knuckles along the ground again. I despair.

    All we can do is work with the key stakeholders in our own organisations, impress them that we have some value to add to all commercial engagements (pre and post contract) and trust they will not be losing sleep over where commissioning ends and procurement starts!

  3. Tony Colwell:

    Over-reaction I think, Peter.

    Admittedly it’s a clumsily worded and ambiguous paragraph, but one that needs to be read in context. (Perhaps your search on “procurement” accounts for your interpretation?)

    I agree with your first paragraph: a mixture of good sense, hopeful exhortation and the odd bit of nonsense. I’d add concerns that, underpinning the reforms, there are flawed assumptions concerning the near automatic/universal benefit from centralisation of procurement and adoption of shared services.

    On the matter of negotiating and agreeing contacts, there is nothing else in the document that suggests Procurement’s responsibility will be diminished.

    The document puts considerable emphasis on
    – increasing accountability in the public sector; and includes references to cross-functional collaboration and joint accountability;
    – the need for better control over commissioning and ongoing provision of outsourced services;
    – improving contract management and project management skills with the intention of improving ‘operational delivery’.
    These things need to be improved separate from and alongside the drive to improve procurement practices (as they certainly can’t be pursued under the banner of procurement).

    I think the public sector commercial/procurement function would do well to reflect on (a) its chosen role (often as policeman rather enabler of operational, including commissioning, activities) (b) whether its historic engagement in contract management has been adequate and, if not, (b) can it really lay the blame on other functions.

    I’ll be interested to see how you thoughts develop. At present I sense a hint of paranoia but, there again, I wouldn’t trust the policy makers to get it right either!

  4. Aardvark:

    Here we go, Procurement folk jumping up and down saying “stand aside, I can fix all this with my superior negotiation skills and my beautifully configured e-sourcing system”.

    We (procurement) need competent clients who can define what they want and have sensible discussions with us about commercial trade-offs and who we can trust to sit in a room with us and the supplier and not to sell the pass. That is presumably the point of the commissioning academy. In the absence of a competent client, we end up in the usual role of trying to act as gatekeeper, only to find the supplier and the client going round us.

  5. Ian Heptinstall:

    It would be funny if it wasnt our money they were spending.

    However they try and re-brand it, it is still procurement. It is almost as thought someone thinks “lets keep the buyers happy playing with the paperclips and laptops, and we can use our superior gut-feel to procure the significant stuff”

    I feel the same about this “lean procurement” branding – the substantive elements we should all recognise from our training decade ago.

    I dont suppose any of this is related to the generalist management consultants the governement seem to use. After all, how would a twenty-something with a first class degree and an MBA know what professional procurement looks like?

  6. David Atkinson:

    Here’s one I prepared earlier….

    Doomed…I tell thee….we’re doomed…

  7. Phoenix:

    On the day of the very last CIPS Council meeting, it’s good to know that our Institute’s seat at the top table in Government has been so worthwhile. Just at the time when our profession can capitalise on Government policy around commissioning, promising a Golden Age for procurement in public service, the door is slammed in our faces. It’s no good having that seat if we’re just going to fall asleep in it.

    Perhaps the plan is to flog training to Government so civil servants get a smattering of an idea how to do our job. That’ll mean lots of cash in the coffers, then. But it would have been so much better to have more jobs for our properly qualified people. And a chance for our profession to step into the limelight. Now we’ll just remain where we were, trying to explain that our job isa bit more than just shopping and that not just anybody can do it, honest.

    1. bitter and twisted:

      Just think: if CIPS really got its act together, we could be as despised as the gibbons in HR.

  8. eSourcingSensei:

    Well I think I’ll change my name to “Flabberghasted”!!

    They simply do not have a clue what they are talking about and this just shows that there are people leading the Civil Service who have absolutely no idea how to run a Procurement Department have no idea what real negotiation is about, have invested in technology they have no idea how to use and maximise (so the end to end solution providing Sourcing linked to CLM onto execution) and are in desperate need of someone to take a hold and lead with real knowledge/understanding and vision

    This piece I understand:
    “The move towards commissioning of services means many more public servants, not least in central government, need skills in managing markets, negotiating and agreeing contracts, and contract management”

    To Francis Maude, and Bob Kerslake – exactly what do you think Procurement does? Because you appear to have no idea if you are setting up a seperate Commissioning Academy to “provide these skills” – why dont you simply employ the right people who can deliever the negotiation skills, technical skills and have an understanding of the market they work in – the Private Sector does exactly that – add to it Market intelligence that can be delivered in a wide range of methodologies which as buyers we have to understand how to use, break down, ascimilate, and apply to our portfolios, and finally we that is THE PROCUREMENT PROFESSIONAL is responsible for the appropriate negotiation of the contract and ensuring in conjunction with the legal team that they cover all requirements and are fully agreed to – given that in most cases agreement/contract clauses are already defined it is more about the samller negotiable areas (there may not actually be any for Public Sector) that the Buyer negotiates with teh Supplier and gets finalised (signed up to) by the them. Then we – THE PROCUREMENT PROFESSIONAL – use technology – the same availaible from Civil Service eSourcing providers – to ensure the contract is in place on our chosen systems.

    Sure we have training and teaching but we the Procurement Team carry out all of these tasks not a special “academy” seperated from the Procurement team

    I am going to lay down now before I tire myself out getting annoyed – I will look forward to your comments next week Peter

  9. Dan:

    If ‘commissioning’ had any validity as a seperate concept to procurement, then it would be used in the private sector. As it stands, its limited to the public sector, which to me indicates that its based on a misunderstanding of what procurement should be doing, as well as an indication of procurement’s still-underwhelming reputation within organisations.

    At least, thats what the more reasonable side of me thinks. The more cynical side thinks that commissioning is procurement for people that think they are far too important to be a ‘mere procurer’.

  10. Final Furlong:

    Resonates, to some extent, with the earlier announcements made in (early) April……..

    Though, this bit….He [Minister Maude] believes it will address the “need for capable, confident and courageous procurement people in the public sector.”…suggests that, originally, it was to be far more procurement-centric.

    ‘Commissioning’ still means different things to different people…

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