Crown Commercial Service – What’s The Strategy?

We said a couple of weeks back that we would take a close, objective and 'helpfully-intended' look at the UK central government procurement operation, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), and what the future might hold for the organisation now we are six months into the new government. There is also a bright and ambitious new Minister (Matt Hancock) responsible for Cabinet Office and CCS which sits within that.

Well, we've talked to a range of informed and smart people from the public and private sector, and now we'll bring you a series of articles looking at the issues CCS faces and how it might move forwards positively. Today, we'll start with exactly where CCS needs to start - the strategy for the organisation.

Immediately we run into a major issue and potential difficulty for CCS. We all know - Procurement 1.0 really - that the procurement strategy at organisational level, and indeed category strategies for that matter, must follow and be aligned with the wider business strategies. If not, procurement runs the risk of failing to gain real credibility and will not contribute what it can and should to the achievement of those strategies and goals.

But now we get the key question. What is the wider "organisation" that CCS needs to align with? If we take its core function now, which is acting as the procurement organisation for all of central government across the common spend categories, then we might think that CCS should align with each department's objectives.

However, the Minister and the Cabinet Office have their own objectives. Arguably, the main goal under previous Minister Francis Maude was to be able to claim with reasonable credibility a large "savings” number to impress the electorate (and to save the taxpayer money / reduce the deficit if you are less cynical).

That however is of little interest to the departments. If a Permanent Secretary needs a top-class piece of management consulting work, CCS being able to claim a "saving" on it is a total irrelevance. A cheap deal on facilities management is no good to an Agency CEO if staff walk out because the heating doesn’t work.

But equally, for CCS to really try and meet the objectives of every department, NDP and Agency is a huge and probably impossible task if it operates simply as a centralised function. Meeting so many disparate needs certainly won't be achieved by a basic framework or indeed single contract. That’s because it is a myth that government departments are in some way similar to branches of Tesco or divisions of a single firm - every department and most agencies and NDPBs have very different goals, cultures, and needs - one size does not fit all.

All this means that currently, clarity over strategy for CCS is lacking. Best practice private sector firms build procurement strategy from what the internal and external customer wants - but the our perception is that the strategy (such as it is) for CCS has largely been imposed from above.

So where does that leave us? Well, Hancock and John Manzoni (Government CEO and head of the Cabinet Office) need to decide what CCS is for and what they really want out of it. Is it "just" some impressive numbers for the media or do they want an organisation that will really help departments achieve their goals, by working in a collaborative and collegiate manner?

We would suggest that latter stance is the best route forward. Apart from anything else, Manzoni does not give the indication of being a committed centralist, and Hancock needs to keep on good terms with his Cabinet colleagues if he wants to be Chancellor in three years time if Osborne becomes Prime Minister. An unpopular and probably failing attempt to over-centralise is unlikely to appeal to those two key folk, we suspect.

So let's assume that CCS re-orientates itself to serve the strategies of departments more closely, and becomes less concerned with its own self-promotion or the media headlines (that has implications for measurement too, but we will come back to that thorny issue another day). What might that mean for the CCS scope, approach and organisation? We'll come back to that in part 2.

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