Hugh Barrett – The Pre-Gap Year Interview (Part 1)

We announced here the departure of Hugh Barrett, Director of Legal Aid Commissioning and Strategy at the Legal Aid Agency. In that role, he has led the efforts to get the close to £2 billion a year of spend with legal providers on a sound and commercial footing. We caught up with Hugh to say farewell before he sets off on his "gap year" - and he really does mean that, in the sense of travelling the world. Indeed, by the time you read this, he may well be gone.

"South America, Australasia, South-East Asia, back through the Middle East and Europe" he says. Some of it is planned - he knows where he will be at Christmas (Tahiti) but it "gets less planned as it goes on".

Hugh has had a 30-year plus career, mainly but not entirely in the procurement and supply chain world. He started with British Airways “in the days when it still felt like the civil service”.  He then did a stint at Mars electronics. Mars, as is their style, wanted him to get some direct manufacturing experience but "I was more interested in staying in the commercial world". So he moved into the telecoms industry with STC and then BT, where he spent some years. "That was in the days when BT was still a sort of semi-public, semi-private sector body. There was still a lot of not very commercial practice in the telecoms sector."

His time in that industry included some general management experience, and one highlight was working in Italy with a company that was part of the Berlusconi empire, but Hugh categorically denies any involvement in bunga-bunga parties, we’re pleased to report.  Well, that’s his story anyway…

He was next inspired by Peter Gershon in 2001 to join what was then the newly created OGC - the Office of Government Commerce. "Peter had a serious reputation in the business world and I thought that if he saw this interesting and worthwhile, it was worth a look. And I know it is a cliché, but I did like the idea of doing something that had wider public good".

The culture and landscape for procurement in central government was very different then. “There were very few senior civil servants in procurement or commercial roles, and it was most unusual for a Perm Sec to talk to their suppliers, for instance”.

Hugh worked initially on supplier relationship management and was probably the first senior public sector executive who had a remit to look at eProcurement.  "We were told e-auctions were illegal, but we piloted the process and it went very well".

But before too long, in 2002 he got the chance to run, the trading and collaborative procurement arm of OGC. "That was the role I really wanted, it was a genuine CEO role and in those days we didn't get much interference from politicians or anyone else really" he says. He reckons his main achievement there was to make the organisation much more customer focused - "we wanted to treat the public sector users of our contracts as clients".

This was also the early days of government beginning to take a stronger line with major suppliers, even when the balance of power appeared to be unfavourable. "We did the first UK central government deal with Microsoft. We persuaded IT directors to put a hold on new orders for a time so that Microsoft could see that we did have some power to at least disrupt their business for a while. And we used "PR" for the first time in a government negotiation situation - we got stories in the press about how displeased we were with Microsoft, and how good it would be if they could offer some savings to the public purse!"

It worked anyway, and saved many millions. Incidentally, Hugh rates Peter Gershon very highly as a negotiator. "Not only was he brilliant at using silence in negotiations (Editor's note; I had some personal experience of that too with Gershon) but he had a very sharp, commercial brain. And he wasn't afraid of anybody - politicians, permanent secretaries, top suppliers ..."

Hugh then moved to what was then the Legal Services Commission in 2008 as the first board-level director of Commissioning for the organisation. At the time, I was a Commissioner - non-executive director in effect – at the LSC and saw the difference a senior appointment in that area could make.  But as he admits, it has been a real challenge.

"It was and is one of the most challenging, fascinating and complex markets you can imagine. We've had some successes in my time - we have cut legal aid expenditure by 30% - but we haven't managed to get the contracts with law firms onto a true commercial basis, which has been the intent since Lord Carter’s report in 2006".

What is interesting is that legal aid providers have seen their incomes drop quite dramatically, yet have resisted moves to make the commissioning process more like a "normal" commercial procurement. "It's interesting that areas like telephone advice, which are tendered in a standard fashion, have seen pretty stable prices over recent years”, he points out. The Agency had over 100 legal challenges to one of their procurements last year - a market made up entirely of lawyers has some interesting aspects, that’s for sure!

In part 2, we will share Barrett's views on central procurement and CCS, and the move to the "Government Procurement Organisation" that Cabinet Office are currently developing. And we'll reveal who his "favourite" Minister is too ...

(Late news - here is Hugh's blog and the first entry, posted today, if you want to feel very jealous)!

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