Crown Commercial Service – What Next for UK Government Procurement?

We are sensitive souls here at the Spend Matters Campus, with its basketball courts, free Michelin starred restaurant and dog-grooming service for staff. So it hurts when old friends who work for the organisation ask us “why do you hate Crown Commercial Service (CCS)”? If you cut us, do we not bleed, and all that sort of thing.

But really, we don't hate CCS, we just feel that the largest and most expensive organisation ever in the history of UK public sector procurement, responsible for billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, deserves some scrutiny. That isn’t going to come from the hopeless opposition political party, or the mainstream press who understand nothing and are seduced by simplistic arguments about “buy more, get bigger discounts”, or most of the limited number of procurement publications who are constrained by their own commercial interests. So we just feel that somebody has to ask some of the difficult questions, and indeed contribute ideas to making public procurement better, an aim we all share.

Given that, and having highlighted some issues around the recent CCS annual report earlier in the summer, we want to take a more positive line now. It is already clear that there is a new mood about in government. Bill Crothers is going; slowly, perhaps unwillingly, but the scourge of the suppliers is off to enjoy his CB and no doubt his non-exec roles and portfolio career. John Manzoni as “government CEO” and Cabinet Office permanent secretary is bringing a less centralised dogma to Cabinet Office. Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office Minister, whilst intellectually strong and with at least as much political clout as Francis Maude, has a much more considered approach to working with the departments.

So as we get into the next five years of a dominant conservative government, where would we like to see CCS and central government procurement going? Moving away from simply criticising what we don’t like, what would we like to see? That is going to be a theme here for the next couple of months, and we hope to engage our readers, many of whom know at least as much as we do about these topics, to make some constructive comments and suggestions.

Now we do need to be realistic. So “central procurement of common goods and services” across central government is a stated policy aim, for instance, so that is not going to disappear. But what does “procurement” mean – or what might it mean – in that context? Does it mean a single central contract for stationery, energy or consulting services? Or does it mean a single strategy, and centrally agreed delivery routes, which might lead to a whole range of different options in terms of the supply scenarios and the delivery of the strategy.

Similarly, the “third of spend going to SMEs” is now a policy goal and therefore a given. But the precise definition of this, as well as the routes to achieve it, might be more open to debate.

The challenge we are setting ourselves, and want to set for our readers, is this. CCS has had a challenging couple of years, and clearly not everything has gone as well as we might have hoped – and as taxpayers, do remember that we all should hope it works well! So what should be done now as we move into a new government? How can UK central government procurement become truly world class and world leading – and that will of course take us into issues around the wider public sector, because the demarcation lines are not at all solid here. (Indeed, we still think the biggest public procurement challenge of all lies in the devolved sphere, around social care).

The next question is this. How can we best facilitate this discussion? Not sure, to be honest. Asking for comments here? A LinkedIn group? Procurious? Let’s think about that, and any suggestions gratefully received. But we will be back soon with some more about the future of CCS.

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Voices (5)

  1. Nick Hanson:

    Immediate evidence of failure; viz. Policies and objectives which are not realistic and achievable. This places sourcing teams in an impossible position of failure and spending their efforts to explain why. They should empower their teams with guidance of preferred outcomes not dictatorial direction.
    They should simply centralise contracting of appropriate commodities and services and leave departments to manage delivery. For specialist procurement e.g. defence equipment, leave that in the individual departments.
    It is simply portfolio management which the private sector has very successfully deployed for decades.

  2. Nick Hanson:

    The CCS is managed by long term civil servants who have advanced through numerous reorganisations. They maintain the status quo and the Civil Service way! It will only change with a sweeping new brush and radical change. Radical for the civil service, but, that which has existed successfully in the private sector for decades. This leopard will not change its spots.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Nick, Great to have your comments here but don’t think that is true really. Current acting CEO, Malcolm Harrison is new with 30 years of private sector experience, CPO of Nestle etc. Matt Denham is 2 years in post, CIO is new, Carl M been there a while but had years in private sector before that, etc. Lots of other new and senior people in the organization, recruited over last couple of years. There may be issues of assimilation, or of over-exaggeration of how good private sector people really are – some of the previous “big hopes” from the private sector who joined CCS and predecessor organizations turned out to be … sort of OK … But I don’t think you can blame any perceived failings on “long term civil servants” to be fair.

  3. Dan:

    Looking forward to seeing how they’re going to implement the 33% of spend going to SMEs, given the knots they’ve tied themselves into trying to get it to 25%

  4. Secret Squirrel:

    Spend Matters round table? Count me in for that!

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