Melinda Johnson at the HCSA Conference – the Health Commercial Adventure!

At last week’s HCSA conference, Melinda Johnson gave us an update on her first year as Commercial Director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), titled Recreating Health Commercial – the adventure to date!

Non-NHS insiders might assume she is the top commercial person in the NHS network, but the structure is a lot more complex than that. She reports to a Chief Commercial Officer in the Department, Steve Oldfield, who is heavily focused on pharma procurement, but there is also the whole NHS “hospital” structure around NHS England and NHS Improvement, two organisations which are merging next year. They are recruiting a Chief Commercial Officer themselves at a very senior level, and then we also have other pretty independent organisations, (NHS Shared Business Services, NHS Blood and Transplant, etc.) over which Johnson has some governance responsibility.

Anyway, it has been a “rollercoaster journey” over the last year and she was very complimentary about what she has seen in her travels around the whole system.  Her role is to support the Department and its arm’s length bodies, but she sees the network as “as one big procurement family” and at times she has interacted directly with people rather than going through the complex organisational channels (good for her!)

Commercial in the DHSC is about “application of business-like thinking” – so Oldfield’s remit includes various companies in which the Department has a stake - such as SBS, SCCL, NHS Property Services, Genomics, NHS Professionals. Commercial input goes well beyond traditional procurement, for example, finding a distributor for one of the firms to help sell their products.  From that, she takes the message that we should think of procurement in the widest possible sense and raise the profile of what we can do.

She’s responsible for a Commercial Policy and Innovation team, and she has worked to get closer to the policy agenda in the Department. Policy makers now have to engage the team, and of course most value can be added when engaged at the beginning of process. (This should apply in every government department, in our view).  Many of the discussions might not end up in a contract but there can still be commercial implications – shaping markets, IP, income generation. In terms of innovation, Johnson is leading a cross-department group considering how we can better drive innovation into every procurement (another big and important issue there).

Then there is internal procurement in the Department, worth £600 million a year, and she’s been thinking about how to respond to new Minister Matt Hancock’s digital agenda.  But she’s had to rebuild capability and recruit after the big DHSC redundancy programme that was in place before she started. The team has also implemented Jaggaer Advantage for eSourcing and achieved CIPS accreditation. In addition, the team still works on behalf of the wider network in some areas such as managing the NHS standard terms and conditions and leading the Scan4Safety initiative.

But her proudest achievement to date is the is new DHSC Contract Management toolkit, and the associated work to get “ownership” of contracts, implement training to build capability, and accredit contract owners – all appropriate staff go through the Government Commercial Organisation (GCO) process now.

She’s obviously very active in that wider GCO community across government, and we would actually put her initiative to set up a Government Commercial Function Northern Hub at the top of her achievements list.  The aim is to attract, recruit, and develop the best people into public procurement - it’s “ridiculous that all the best commercial jobs are in London”. (There speaks a proud Yorkshire woman)! Earlier this year, over 300 people came to the conference in the Queens Hotel in Leeds - “it’s a movement”, Johnson says.

There are also plans to share more best practice, and to use the GCO commercial operating standards across the wider health family, who will also be able to access the GCO assessment centres if they are interested. But the biggest commercial issue right now is contingency planning for a possible no-deal Brexit, which has involved not just the centre of the DHSC but people from around the Trusts.

In the Q&A panel that followed (see picture above), Johnson agreed with the suggestion that the procurement landscape is still too fragmented, and closer working between the centre and the new NHSE/I organisation is needed, in particular. That’s why the Chief Commercial Officer appointment in that organisation is so vital, and there was speculation during the coffee breaks about who will apply for that from among the current crop of health procurement leaders. Might Johnson be one of those?

We’ll have to see, but her impressive session certainly showed that she’s achieved a lot in a year, and she appears to command a lot of respect in the community. She’s a great networker, and combines personal warmth – charm, even - with energy, competence and determination.

But we should point out that there are other very good commercial people around in the NHS, and I’d like to see some of the star NHS Trust procurement leaders applying for the role. But the cynics are already expecting an appointment from the private sector – I do hope not. This is such a complex landscape, that someone (no matter how talented) who does not know their way around the public sector at least, ideally the NHS, will take two years to just reach a level of basic competence.  And I know the private sector pretty well – I just don’t see qualified people out there who are “better” than Johnson and her most capable NHS colleagues, frankly. Anyway, a topic for next year’s HCSA event no doubt!



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