Has Francis Maude got the time needed to drive public procurement improvement?

It would be a great shame if the UK’s  Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, goes down in the political history books merely as “the Jerrycan Man”.

We tend to preface our comments about him with an recognition of how knowledgeable he is on procurement matters, how he’s the most interested Minister we’ve ever had in our professional field in the UK, and so on. But he has had an awful few days, so the time has come to ask – is he spread to thinly and is that affecting his ability to drive better procurement performance across the public sector?

The last couple of weeks has seen him give three not very good (we’re being generous here) interviews – the File on Four radio programme where he was exposed in terms of his lack of knowledge on the Welsh procurement initiatives; then his defence of David Cameron’s “kitchen suppers”, where he argued against releasing details of guests just hours before the Prime Minister decided he would go public with the names; then his now infamous call that we should to fill up Jerrycans with petrol.

The tragic incident with Diane Hill who was badly burnt while transferring petrol in her kitchen has put a different slant on what was originally a bit of fun at Maude’s expenses, and there have even been calls for his resignation (not appropriate and won’t happen, in our view).

But why on earth was he speaking on that issue (and indeed on the No.10 visitor issue): why not the Minister for Energy, or Transport, or Business? Where have William Hague, Eric Pickles, Ken Clarke been hiding during the Tories last week or so of pain?

Is Maude the only Minister prepared to put his head over the parapet, or is he seen as the most competent? Because he already has a broader portfolio than any Cabinet Minister. Not just public procurement (£200B a year, let’s remind ourselves – more than the total cost of the Health Service), but shared services, the Big Society, constitutional reform, economic and EU policy, civil service management  including pensions, government IT, coordination of national security...  the list goes on.

And now he's apparently Minister for Petrol Panic and No.10 guest lists as well.

We’ve been getting the feeling recently that maybe he and others feel  that public procurement has been “sorted” and now needs less of his attention. The central buying of top commodities is well underway – although not without issues, as the ConsultancyOne tender schedule slips again. Work on SMEs progresses, and I’m sure things are happening on lean procurement and various other initiatives.

But Cabinet Office is showing no apparent appetite to address the wider procurement issues across the public sector, and some of those are beginning to grow into concerns that could start moving beyond just parochial procurement interest.  Just a few random current issues – the dysfunctional market for locum doctors, with hospitals paying £20,000 for a weekends’ work; the crisis in social care provision; the aircraft carriers uncertainty and the future generally of MOD procurement; the SouthWest One failure and what it means for future outsourcing in local authorities; the police and their “let’s outsource everything” project in Surrey and West Midlands. I could go on.

These need someone with power and intelligence to take a strategic political view I would argue. The government may not want to get involved beyond Whitehall, but public procurement is a lot more than merely joining up the buying of a few categories across central departments. Maude – and the government – won’t get much credit for saving a few million on office supplies if these other public procurement hot potatoes end up on the front pages.

So if Maude is so ubiquitously useful to the government that he is going to be pulled in so many directions, the time seems right perhaps to appoint a junior Minister to the procurement portfolio. Someone who can share the burden and get some attention focused on these wider issues, and to give a bit of continuity just in case the petrol panic, or anything else for that matter, leads to Maude’s departure from his current portfolio.

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Voices (8)

  1. life:

    I’m not sure I can keep up with this, however….
    Like a big, bizarre, curates egg I realise Churchill is “controversial in parts” but I’m a big fan. I think a lot of what we may be talking about here is the lack of sincerity / authenticity, and the gap between public “face” and the private goings on. Charles Moore in the Saturday Telegraph had an interesting slant on this on a personal level, given he is, I understand, personal friends with at least some of those he cites. Even Churchill wasn’t immune to “playing the angel”. Plenty of examples but least sinisterly and most interestingly I recall the Gilbert biog laying out his showboating on a cavalry horse, at great personal danger, while in the Army to progress his (pre?) nascent political career. Despite the “props” to Churchill, those who know history greater than I claim Cromwell as the greatest Englishman, and his own idea of parliament was far less settled, but in ways even more pure?! I suspect despite your earlier post I may have had an even longer day and at this stage I despair of segwaying any of this back to procurement…!

  2. David Orr:

    It was 8:05am but this site is yet to be set for summer time!

    I am all in favour of reasonable profit that comes out of the work i.e. providing and adding value.

    I am v careful with coffee as manicccccc enuff without the shot!

    Churchill: “We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.

    Churchill said this as Leader of the Opposition in a speech before the House of Commons on the afternoon of November 11, 1947. The occasion was the Second Reading of the Parliament Bill, proposing to reduce the delaying period of the House of Lords from two years to one. Clement Attlee and his Labour Government saw the House of Lords as a brake on their expansion of government.

  3. life:

    All this at 7am! Like to see a post after your first coffee 😉

    – why “in turns”? I think the electorate are right there with you!

    – I think you address this, but just generally we do need to be careful with doing profit, and even enrichment, down too much. I don’t follow Euro news but it seems like UK and US debate is currently a race to the bottom in terms of slamming anyone that earns over the median wage, and let’s face it there will always be plenty of those. Improper or illlegal behaviour, disparity, even just plain greed, yes we should address personally and through policy, but profit per se shouldn’t be an issue. No profit quickly = no supplier. Setting the level of acceptable profit is very much like, actually is, calibrating ethics in a generic way and this needs to be done carefully by brave people. It’s “amusing” that debate on education (all about willing on children to do better, compete, good job etc) can often sit so easily with adjacent articles completely demolishing anyone who’s actually done it (and usually just because of the money involved, rather than what they may or may not have achieved).

    – A lot of answers are simple but difficult to do. Party funding a case in point. And the impact is felt by, and resisted at, both ends of the process. Follow the money: people who buy influence don’t want to have that taken from them, and the large sums involved then gets spent (typically still) in the traditional media, who therefore might not be that engaged in trying to sort the issue out. No surprise the debate always focusses on the former rather than the latter.

  4. David Orr:

    Is the real issue herein the impact of party politics on our democracy; the lobbying and buying of influence by big business, wealthy individuals (usually avoiding tax) and Trade Union “Baron” Leaders aggregating many thousands or even milliions members subs?

    Lobbying & the buying of influence is driven by the need for political parties to constantly gain funding in an electoral “arms race” that is heading relatively towards the US of A levels of “spend”.

    It is “gerrymandering” not “jerrycanning” that should concern us.

    Every single political party (Lib Dems included) has problems in this area.

    The scandal of lobbying and the purchasing of influence is rotting out political systems; limiting regulatory bodies.and the electorate is in turns angry, cynical, apathetic & disengaged.

    Did large building companies give a lot of money to the Conservative party because they believed it would have no influence over changes to our post-war planning framework in their favour?

    Does the 40% turnout and Respect win in Bradford West indicate “a plague on all of your houses”?

    When you see people risking life & limb to get a say & a vote in Syria, Burma, Egypt etc does it not make you feel just a bit ashamed that we have ended up like this?

    In the Cabinet Office, the procurement agreement (MoU) with IBM remains secret.

    Will procurement decisions be made that reduce profit margins for large suppliers or deal with the scandal of offshoring of work & skills to a competing economy in India (from our SW1 experiences I would say to maximise profit not reduce costs for taxpayers) whilst 25% of our young people are unemployed?

    In the Met Office, an IBM Exec is appointed Chief Information Officer on the Board whilst still being an employee of IBM and not then bound by civili service rules or a Met office contract of employment. The IBM employee (the Met Office principal supplier of the supercomputer) is in a position of clear influence over ICT strategy and subsequent ICT procurement. No-one objects or reports on this or appears to care at all.

    Limit party spend in elections and supporting activities.

    Clear up lobbying.

    Support total transparency and publish openly links, donations, meetings, trips etc.

  5. life:

    I’m interested in politics but more interested in competent managment – I’ve been waiting to see how this works through…. the jury’s out? The disturbing thing for me with the comments is how flippant it all seemed. You’ve got to think it’s all well intentioned, but I hope more attention is given to the actual job(s) in hand; what the Cabinet Office is trying to do is immense, unprecedented and, I think obviously, under resourced so I hope we’re all focussed on the job in hand!

  6. bitter and twisted:

    If Maude is an interested minister lets go back to neglect.

  7. Craig:

    MCO was commenting on petrol as the Minister responsible for civil contingencies.

  8. John Diffenthal:

    Your list of Maude’s involvements would tax anyone – at what point does he realise that instead of spreading himself so thinly, he should focus more on implementation than telling us about what he would like to achieve?

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