Public Procurement Summit – SMEs, the Future of Procurement, and Bill Crothers

The Public Procurement Summit yesterday was held at the very impressive Cavendish Conference Centre in London - underground, but comfortable, modern and well equipped, with excellent chocolate biscuits! So a good event, and one that gave us a chance to pick up on the zeitgeist in the sector. It was good to catch up with some old friends - and get the news on moves, promotions, and general gossip of course.

It suffered somewhat from the usual problem with events that are free to attend - a high proportion of folk who register don't show up on the day. Even so, there were a good 150 people in the auditorium for the opening sessions, not a bad turn out. The level of delegates was quite senior, and central government were in the majority but there were a reasonable number from health, local government and other parts of the public sector.

The first revelation (of the gossip variety) was that Bill Crothers, the government's Chief Commercial Officer, has announced this week that he is going at the end of November. He told the world he was standing down some time ago, but not exactly when. His replacement - in an acting capacity - is Chris Hall, ex Ernst and Young and currently head of the Complex Transactions team in Crown Commercial Services (CCS). So, the end of the Crothers era ... more on that to come no doubt.

Back to the Summit - Andrew Haldenby of think tank Reform chaired the morning sessions. I would have liked to hear more from him, he is a very bright and interesting chap so it seemed a bit of a waste that he "only" chaired it. The opening keynote from Martin Fewell of the Met Police was also a bit odd to be honest - he is Comms Director rather than a procurement person and although he talked about some quite interesting stuff around digital transformation, it was also a somewhat obvious sales pitch for wae, the lead sponsor of the event and a “global service design company” the Met have worked with. I'm afraid I was left wondering what on earth this had to do with procurement.

Things picked up with Jim Carter, CPO of Network Rail and Pat Mills, Commercial Director at the Department of Health, talking about "the future of procurement". We've also done a fair bit of speaking about this subject recently, but here they focused really on developing strategic leadership in procurement and a bit on eProcurement rather than what I would have defined as the future of the profession.

Mills was open about the problems facing the NHS, and whilst he did not really add much to the capability debate, he was interesting on the challenges for NHS Supply Chain, and ideas such as pre-buying a year's worth of product from innovative SMEs to encourage new ideas and businesses. He also made the point that it is difficult for Health to meet the government’s target that 33% of spend should go to smaller firms, when so much of their spend is inevitably with giant pharmaceutical firms.

Terry Brewer from Harrow Council  and Dr Cass Chideock from the Crown Commercial Services Small Business Policy Team talked about SMEs – that definitely gave us food for further thought and writing. I probably also got the award for the most difficult question of the day when I put Mr Brewer on the spot by bringing up the question of comparative advantage in the context of Harrow – and other councils – wanting to support “local firms”.

The session from Simon Dennis of Salisbury NHS Trust was also good, and that looks like another Trust we will have to add to our list of “people in the NHS doing good procurement stuff”. In the same session, Frank Omare of SAP went back to the “Future of Procurement” theme. This was thought provoking yet seemed to have quite a few internal contradictions – if much basic and even quite advanced sourcing work will be automated and led by business users in the future (I agree), then why is procurement outsourcing likely to grow too?

We will also come back to the presentations from Matt Denham of CCS and Joaquim Nunes de Almeida from the European Commission too, either here on our Public Spend Matters Europe site. Denham stood in for Sally Collier – well done to him, and he appeared to be very honest in his remarks about his organisation, which was refreshing. More on that to come.

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