The End of an Era – Looking Back at Bill Crothers’ Time as the UK Government’s Chief Commercial Officer (Part 3)

(Continuing our reflections on Bill Crothers' time as the UK government's Chief Commercial Officer; part 1 is here, and part 2 is here).

Although he believes it was very effective, the work on the “leading suppliers programme” we featured yesterday is not one of the two things Crothers looks back on most proudly. He is particularly pleased that Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary and top civil servant in the country, and John Manzoni, the civil service CEO, now believe that developing commercial capability is the number one priority for the civil service. "That's because senior people have recognised that poor commercial performance adversely affects the reputation of the civil service - as well as costing the taxpayer a lot of money. I'd like to think I've played a part in raising the profile to that extent".

That's pretty indisputable really; Crothers certainly had the credibility, based in part on his previous track record, to impress those senior folk personally and to use that to drive greater understanding of commercial matters and the skills needed.

The second of his proudest achievements is the government's graduate training scheme for commercial graduates, part of the wider civil service fast-stream programme. There were 70 new starters last year, and the same again this year – he hopes there will be over 1,000 applications for the next intake. That's linked to the creation of the commercial specialism, a market premium on salaries, and professional standards.

Those trainees have options in terms of their professional qualifications; they have a choice - MCIPS, accountancy, and perhaps some other options. Crothers feels it is good to offer them a choice and "if we believe in competition, that shouldn't be a bad thing for CIPS either"! (Something else we can certainly agree on.)

Having covered his proudest achievements, the discussion turned back to the strategic supplier programme. Following the initial savings focus, Crothers implemented more initiatives such as the crown commercial representatives (CCRs), and an increased level of supplier performance management across government. So what does the situation look like now in terms of supplier management?

Crothers thinks "we are more confident now, we have more sophisticated conversations with the market". There is less focus on regulations - he says he was told at one point the government couldn't use the clauses around grave misconduct in the EU regs to take action against a supplier just because "no-one ever did" and "there was no case law" about what they wanted to do. "That is an example of the regulations being used as an excuse - it happened too often".

He's critical of what he calls the "clay pigeon shoot" where the authority sticks up an OJEU and sees who bids - that is just not a sensible approach. "We need to have conversations with the most important suppliers, we need to understand their distinctive capabilities". But he recognises that care must be taken to make sure those firms don't get them any unfair advantage when it comes to contracting. (That is a difficult balance, and one we've touched on at Spend Matters more than once, but again we would certainly for instance support the focus on "early engagement" that Maude and Crothers brought to the party).

We've heard a number of different views about the Crown Commercial Representatives, and their effectiveness seems somewhat variable. Crothers believes "they have filled a gap, and some have been excellent", but he supports the view that more supplier management capability and work should be brought in house now, and sees the CCRs being used as a sounding board rather than leading the process.

Indeed, one of his final senior recruits is someone who is joining the civil service at a senior level who will act as the relationship manager across government with just one single supplier. Luc Bardin, a relationship management and collaboration guru, has been advising on some of this thinking and he's been very useful, and Crothers has a clear view of how this capability needs to develop.

"We have to get better at handling large suppliers, but that needs skills, experience, judgement and confidence - each of those builds and supports the next, but until you have all four you won't be really effective. You're playing for Juventus, not Rotherham when you're in the public sector procurement dealing with the big providers!"

He introduced the acronym STACK to describe what was needed: specialism , time, attitude, crown (government acting as a single crown buyer), and knowledge (data). He also pushed the use of the "commercial "word rather than procurement, "because I wanted people to see this was about much more than the regulated process". His famous DNA model, developed with input from Guy Strafford of Proxima, was another element of this re-positioning, along with the commissioning academy and lean procurement - both of which, he is quick to point out, were successful initiatives from before his time.

(We will be back with part 4 next week).

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