Ian Watmore part 2: Q & A covers procurement issues

We discussed yesterday Ian Watmore's speech at the recent Government efficiency conference.  He took questions and they were quite revealing in some cases; here are the highlights.

Question:  why aren't Buying Solutions frameworks used more and more consistently (questioner was a supplier).   Watmore took the wind out of the his sails really by saying that there had been too much proliferation of contracts, many not used.  "The argument has been lost on frameworks".  It is a "dirty word"!  "It is a necessary part of procurement - but we really want to get people aggregating their spend - that will give the best deal".  He wants to turn Buying Solutions into the body that "does that once" for Government.

Question; are there any limits to transparency?  "It is a theology" he replied, held very close to the heart of people at the top in the coalition.  They believe that if you make the information available, then public pressure will reform the system.  "It is not going to go away" - he believes it is better to make information public (e.g. as he did over capability reviews) whereas protecting Gateway reviews in the court was a "waste of time".  There are limits though but direction of travel is more transparency - so we should get behind it, make it easy, reliable (music to the ears of Spikes Cavell I'm sure!)

Question - what can we do about the 'culture' around shared services- people don't trust the service you get from shared services (too right - see our comments yesterday).  Watmore criticised people who just 'dip their toe in the water' rather than diving into the shared service pool.  Now it's easy for him to say that; I wouldn't have wanted to be the CFO who decided to outsource my entire Finance function to DfT a few years back...! There is a chicken and egg thing going on here...Anyway, he suggested that shared service centres shouldn't just do transactions (e.g. AP or GL in a Finance context). They should actually provide in that case the whole finance function.  Be bold.

The final question was a killer - from the Chair, the CEO of National Savings I believe.  If people (Departments) have a plan that meets the budget requirements, she asked, will that be enough for Cabinet Office? Or is the centre still going to micro-manage the plans, or mandate things that are for the good of the whole of Whitehall?  Watmore struggled a little with this - I think his message was that CO reserved the right to push people to collaborate or change policy even if their numbers looked OK, if it was for the greater good.

Now to me this could be where fault lines grow - as a Perm Sec I'll happily sign up to MY plan, even if it is tough and challenging.  But I'm not going to take the accounting officer 'rap' if things go wrong because Watmore forced me to join an inefficient shared service centre, stopped me contracting with my preferred supplier, or made me use open source software that proved a security failure. IF he wants me to do that - he needs to put it in writing and get sign-off at the highest level that I am excused a kicking if things go wrong because of Cabinet Office's mandated actions!

He finished on firmer ground, saying that of course Departments were generally jolly happy about what was being done centrally - a good example was the commercial re-negotiations with major suppliers. People said he was cutting across Departments' accountability, Maude mandated it - and £800 million savings has apparently been delivered and Departments are now delighted.

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