PASC review (Public Administartion Select Committee) part 2

Continuing our review of the UK parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee report on public sector procurement (part 1 here).

- In terms of data, the recommendations are sensible, but the devil is in the detail of course. The Committee suggests Cabinet Office should look at  extending data collection beyond central government - that's fair enough, they don't say go and actually collect everything, which would be an awesomely huge task. I suspect this needs to be done on a sector by sector level first, which would eventually give the opportunity for aggregating data across the whole public sector.

The Cabinet Office should publish a plan and timeline of no more than a few months for the complete implementation of a system to collect consistent and comparable data on procurement spending across government departments and agencies... Once this is complete, the Cabinet Office should also plan to extend its data collection exercise beyond central Government to identify what further data it could collect to improve its understanding of the performance of government procurement.

-  The PASC says very directly that the Government has failed to set out a strategy for public procurement. Hard to  argue with this comment.

The Cabinet Office should issue a clear strategy on the organisation of procurement across Government and the wider public sector which sets out its objectives for procurement and how and when they are to be achieved, in response to this report.

- And I very much like the comments and recommendation around aggregation. This fits with the comments on the lack of a strategy really. An approach to aggregation - when, why and where it takes place - should be one of the core aspects of that strategy. So again, difficult to disagree really with this:

Aggregation of demand must be clearly justifiable in terms not only of price but also in terms of the impact on the value for money of the goods and services being procured. This underlines why the Government must establish a clear and authoritative mechanism for deciding when procurements are subject to the Cabinet Office mandate; those that can be retained under Departmental control; and how disputes are to be resolved.

- Finally, the  PASC get into the whole question of Cabinet Office's mandate for asserting their authority. They intend to address it in a future study on Civil Service Reform, so it is a little inconclusive here. The Government should be able to act as single customer - as PASC say - and clearly it should be possible to share information. Some of the evidence that lawyers stopped departments doing so seemed odd to me - that's one of the areas where it would have been good to have some senior departmental procurement folk giving evidence.

We are not convinced that the Cabinet Office has the authority to assert the Government’s policy on the procurement of common goods and services. It is doubtful therefore whether targets for transferring responsibility for procurement of all common goods and services to the Government Procurement Service by December 2013 will be met. It is inexplicable to us that the Ministerial Public Expenditure Committee’s Subcommittee on Efficiency and Reform should give a mandate to the Cabinet Office which has proved unenforceable in practice. The Cabinet Office must have the unequivocal support of Number 10 and the Treasury if it is to fulfil and effective leadership role in cross government procurement operations and policy.


BUT.. the elephant in the room is the whole principle of Ministerial and Official accountability. If a Department is told they have to allow another body carry out critical procurement or project management activities - not voluntarily, but mandated - then how can that Minster or Perm Sec be accountable if things go wrong? That's what no-one has answered yet in terms of this drive for Cabinet Office to become a sort of delivery arm for all of central government.

Apart from making Cabinet Office and their Ministers incredibly important, it would give every other department the perfect get out clause for any failure. But perhaps it will be addressed in the next PASC review - we await that with interest. In the meantime, I assume that Cabinet Office and Francis Maude, the Minister, will make some sort of response to this report. It makes some very good points - but of course it will only have lasting value if things are done as a result of it.

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Voices (2)

  1. Mike:

    I’m a little surprised in the light of PASC’s previous discourse on this topic, at the suggestion that just by having things – a system, a strategy, a mechanism – government will have the answers to the problem. For example, there’s already a system to collect comparable data and it’s been live for 7 years. The challenge lies in getting departments, agencies et al to channel spend through it and generate the data. Nonetheless a chunky amount of data has already been gathered – but still the question remains of how to exploit it and more importantly, who is going to take a lead on it? Discussions have recently taken place, as reported by Spend Matters and others and the value of aggregated data is widely recognised. Just ask the private sector. But it’s not about having it – it’s about what you do with it that creates the value. Optimising the collection of the data and using it to significantly increase government’s commercial capability seems obvious but unless someone seizes the day, it holds no value at all.

    BTW – there’s a Procurement Roundtable being hosted at Procserve in London on the 17th September on this very subject. If you are interested, contact (sorry for the plug).

    As to a strategy on the organisation of procurement, forgive me but I have been labouring under the notion that the ERG collaborative procurement strategy fits this bill. Of course the difficulty in getting departments to work with it is well documented. Here we get into the conflict between serving organisational and wider interests. It’s a bit like the idea that by setting a target for the whole of English football the interests of big Premier League clubs and the national team become one and the same – although it’s very clear that they’re not and never can be. That’s why this needs intervention and total commitment from the top. Again it’s not about having a strategy – it’s how it’s applied that matters.

    Same goes for “A clear and authoritative mechanism for deciding when procurements are subject to the Cabinet Office mandate; those that can be retained under Departmental control; and how disputes are to be resolved.”

    They’d better pay good attention to that last bit.

    Returning to discussions about capability and capacity, it’s still not clear how the new CCS can be staffed to succeed without an injection of people and talent. This is not being critical of anyone connected with the current organisation or earmarked to be part of the new one. But the challenges seem so off the scale that putting together a workforce capable of meeting them seems beyond the physical and budgetary capability of government. Perhaps lots of the right appointments – and equally important, the senior commitment and hands-on backing to succeed are in the pipeline. I sure hope so.

    Otherwise the devil won’t be in the detail – but there may be a new ring in the 9th Circle and it won’t be ice it’s full of.

  2. Bill Atthetill:

    Excellent summary Peter.

    A few points from me (initially).

    The lean initiative (from your previous post) is seen as laughable. It hasn’t reduced the average timeline of a procurement to 120 days (or less) – this is being achieved by simply setting a target for practitioners in Departments. The lean training is hopelessly irrelevant in respect of many procurements in Central Government, especially in ‘common goods and services’ where the vast majority of users are civil servants themselves. Unlike Local Government, MOD, Health etc, where many are either on the front-line or are citizens (real customers).

    Cabinet Office need to focus all of their current efforts on Central Government spend data before becoming distracted by wider government. This is the mistake made by some OGC CEOs, where they thought they could take on the entire UK, while their own backyard was still in a mess. Once Central Government data management becomes ‘productised’ then they should branch out into relevant areas. (The PASC lost their marbles on this one – probably Mr Cram’s influence.)

    For centralisation/aggregation to be successful, the new central organisation needs to be set up for success and be an exemplar. All eyes then turn to the new Crown Commercial Service (CCS) which looks and feels like a dog’s breakfast, currently, populated with a rare mix of core civil servants (still speaking Mandarin), 30+ consultants (from 3 different consultancies, presumably to keep each one ‘below the radar’ (using “verbal vomit” – Mandarin speak for constantly teaching us to suck eggs), consultants on secondments from one/two of the big firms (trying their best to speak Mandarin), and ‘entrepreneurs’ from the private sector doing what a good procurement manager could do in their sleep (if they had the same authority and the same ‘freedom’).

    Given the new CCS won’t go live until October (probably November, in reality) I can’t see how they’re going to hit their deadline of December 2013…

    Devil in the detail.

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