Sally Collier Moves On – We Look Back At Her Public Procurement Career

With Sally Collier leaving Crown Commercial Service to run Ofqual, let's take a look back at her procurement career - because I don't think she will be back in our world again, I'm afraid. This will be a personal article, as I worked with her several times through the noughties, although we will try to be objective too where possible!

Our closest working was on the Procurement Capability Reviews (PCR). She asked me to develop the methodology for the reviews and got me to agree a (very) low five-figure fee for the development work. I later found that some large consulting firms had quoted large six-figure fees! So give her a tick in the "negotiation" box - she could be tough and charming simultaneously, I found.

The whole PCR programme highlighted her skills perfectly. A very good programme manager, she was capable of managing something that was complex, sensitive and required management of both her own team and many different and often difficult stakeholders. By nature, she is action-oriented, but to succeed as she has done in the civil service, she has had to learn to be patient and tenacious where necessary. Indeed, her programme management skills were legendary in OGC days; there is the perhaps apocryphal story that she ran her wedding using formal programme management methodologies, utilising MS Project, with multiple sub-projects each with resource allocation and deliverables. And a risk register of course!

She is also an excellent manager; she was inspirational for many who worked for her, and is a great role model for women in the civil service too. I don't want to get into deep water here as a man commenting on these matters; let's just say any young woman I'm sure would benefit from talking to her about how she approached various challenges as she rose through the system.

Collier is also effective in the classic "policy" civil servant mode, with a good understanding of the whole process, from developing options, research and all the inevitable liaison with Ministers and other senior mandarins that is generally needed. Her work over the years on procurement policy was always thoughtful and effective, ranging over not just the real EU regulatory stuff but a wide range of best practice type initiatives too.

When Francis Maude came in as Cabinet Office Minister in 2010, the initial rumours were that Collier would not survive for long. She didn't have the private sector badge, which he valued, or even any real public sector direct commercial / procurement experience. And we heard that she had even dared to disagree with him in meetings! However, not only did she survive, she thrived, as Maude recognised that here was someone with a lot to offer. It probably helped that he was a bit of an EU procurement regulations "geek" as a lawyer himself. I do remember her telling me a few years back that "having a Minister who knows as much as I do about obscure paragraphs in the 2006 Public Contracts Regulations Directives can be a real positive - and a bit of a negative at times!"

That comment about her disagreeing was indicative of another quality. Whilst she was quite capable of doing the Sir Humphrey civil service thing where necessary, she is not afraid to express her own views, pretty robustly at times, to anyone – and I’ve seen her use her sense of humour to get across those difficult messages more successfully. She is very much her own woman; I could not imagine her compromising her principles on a critical matter. However, she has had to flex as well, at one point, she was not a believer in targets for SME spend - then of course when the Tories came in, that target was implemented and Collier has supported it fully. She knows when to bend and when to stand firm, I suspect.

The only negative you would hear about her when she got the Crown Commercial Service CEO role was her lack of operational procurement experience - she had never run a tender or negotiated a contract in anger, as it were. That might have been an issue in terms of some of the problems we have seen with CCS; she may have underestimated some of the operational challenges. She took over from a very operationally strong CEO in David Shields who was also based in Liverpool and managed that team in a very hands-on and direct way - with Collier spending more time in Norwich and London, perhaps a little focus was lost.

However, she has just about managed to hold CCS together through a difficult time, a tribute to her personal qualities. And there have been successes; well done to the CCS FM team who won ‘Procurement Team of the Year’ at last week’s national GO “Excellence in Public Procurement” Awards.

Back to Collier: I always felt it was a privilege and a pleasure when we did collaborate, both because she was simply really good to work with (developing and working on the PCR programme is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying things I have done in my life) and also because I thought from the early days that she was a potential Permanent Secretary. It looks like she might still be on track for that, although I'm not sure she would put up with the need to be in London at all hours. So we thank her for a major contribution to the public procurement world, and we wish her success, fun, achievement and satisfaction in her new role.

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Voices (6)

  1. Bill Atthetill:

    Sally does have a talent for securing jobs where her lack of experience appears to be irrelevant…

  2. Dan2:

    Surely the PCR work was won through fair and open competition rather than negotiation? 😉

    1. Peter Smith:

      You know, I did hesitate before I wrote that thinking someone might spot that!! But actually, I had already been engaged by OGC to work on other stuff through a framework if I remember correctly (?) so it was arguably a small “contract variation” to divert me onto PCR development for 2 weeks! B*****y good value anyway!

  3. Secret Squirrel:

    A very fair assessment in many ways but I remain very unconvinced.

    PCRs for example were scrapped because they led to little practical change. Whilst the method was sound, the follow through on diagnostic to action wasnt there.

    I would also disagree with the excellent manager statement. I saw nepotism and huge artificial inflation of roles and salary. The number of SCS roles in CCS shows that; even overlooking the staff on boarding.

    What is very accurate is her ability as a policy civil servant and playing the game. I’m just very unsure of what real practical difference any of it made.

    1. Final Furlong:

      There is, perhaps, truth in what you say, but, to some degree, everyone must play the game in any large corporate organisation, especially the civil service. Or you need a thick skin (to go with your thick head). Like Bill, I guess.

      I always found Sally to be extremely engaging and wanting to respond to the needs of Departments. But she was ‘in the thick of it’, surrounded by ineptitude, and by poor, uninformed, or over-informed, decision-making.

      One day, Government will take the decision to invest in building a truly elite commercial, procurement and supply chain capability that resonates with the very best in any sector. One day, but not any time soon, regrettably.

      1. Secret Squirrel:

        Re: “but she was ‘in the thick of it’, surrounded by ineptitude, and by poor, uninformed, or over-informed, decision-making.”

        That’s where you and I will disagree. My view is very firmly that she was part of the ineptitude. She had no grasp of the practical implications and consequently led a merry little band of hangers-on into many a dead end.

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