The End of an Era – Looking Back at Bill Crothers’ Time as the UK Government’s Chief Commercial Officer (Part 1)

At the end of November, Bill Crothers moved on from his key and high-profile role as the UK government's Chief Commercial Officer, after around four years during which he was without a doubt the highest-profile "procurement" executive in the country.

After joining the Cabinet Office in 2010, he became Chief Procurement Officer in 2012 and that morphed into the Chief Commercial Officer role in 2014. The Belfast-born accountant and ex- Accenture partner certainly stirred things up with his assertive and sometimes opinionated style, as he and Minister Francis Maude set about saving billions of pounds and re-calibrating government's relationship with its major third-party suppliers.

So over the next few days, we are pleased to feature a series of articles looking back at his period in the role, and to inform our analysis we were able to have an informal chat (over scrambled eggs, toast and tea) with the man himself just before Christmas.  He stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity, but it was fascinating to get the insight from within, into some of the commercial initiatives we observed from the outside over recent years.

We started our discussion by looking back at the environment after the 2010 election when the coalition government came into power. Austerity was the name of the game, and defined much of the new government's approach, with Francis Maude the new Minister in Cabinet Office overseeing much of the cost-reduction programme. It was a "perfect storm" for the incoming government, a huge challenge but also an opportunity - as the Labour Minister Liam Byrne famously said in his note "I'm afraid there is no money!"  A burning platform for change, if you like.

Crothers moved into the Cabinet Office from the Home Office shortly after the election to work with Maude, and he obviously has great respect for Maude. "He is very sharp, he is a lawyer and has worked in industry, and he saw the role differently from his predecessors. He was at odds with the system in some ways - he was a whirlwind! He came in with clear ideas of what he wanted to do and what needed to be done.”

Unlike many of his predecessors, Maude didn't see the role as a stepping stone to greater things, so wasn't worried about upsetting anyone and was prepared to take unpopular decisions. Maude quickly implemented his ten controls on spend, hitting areas such as contingent labour, consulting and advertising - "that was to shock the system,” Crothers believes, as well as to actually start the savings process.

Of course, this caused some push-back. Departments complained about the time it took to get spend approvals, but arguably the chaos was part of the control - the key objective was to put a rapid brake on spending. Maude and his team also worked with the Treasury on those controls, to establish what needed to be done in terms of the "Green Book" and other issues.

In Crothers’ view, respect for procurement prior to 2010 was low generally in central government, and the function was still seen as something of a backwater. It was fragmented, and although his predecessors including John Collington and David Shields had kicked off some good initiatives, data was still poor or non-existent. There was no real clarity on who the top suppliers to government were, for instance.

Crothers says that from a supplier point of view, government could be a terrible client – he called it “inconsistent, indecisive and incoherent” when he was in the Home Office. "One big supplier added a fourth "i" - they said, yes but you are in charge!” Much of the perspective of procurement seemed to be centred on the EU process and regulation, he says.

But he stresses he was never a believer it was a case of "private sector good, public bad.”  He acknowledges that the demands in the public sector were and are higher, everyone works in a goldfish bowl, with the pressure of media and public interest, and "much of what is done is incredibly complicated.” So, as he says, the need for real commercial professionalism is arguably even higher than it is in the private sector.

(We will be back with part 2 tomorrow).

Voices (3)

  1. Secret Squirrel:

    “although his predecessors including John Collington and David Shields had kicked off some good initiatives, data was still poor or non-existent”

    Revisionist bullshit. Name one ‘Strategic Supplier’ in the ‘Crown Reps’ programme that changed.

    “he stresses he was never a believer it was a case of “private sector good, public bad.””

    Again, revisionist bullshit. CCS were consistently told they needed to be more like the private sector and a huge focus was given on bringing in new ‘big hitters’ from the private sector. No change in outcomes though!

    “Much of the perspective of procurement seemed to be centred on the EU process and regulation”. Ummm……isn’t that a good part of the job? Managing the process to comply with the law? And of course, his focus on the real commercials really helped in the Home Office. Like that great deal with Raytheon…..

    1. Dan:

      Re: procurement being centred on EU regulations, I agree with you that it is an important part of the job. However, I think Peter or Bill is being generous. In my experience, an awful lot of procurement people seem to think its the only part of the job, and just content themselves with sending out and evaluating tenders without any kind of strategic thought or creativity.

    2. LM:

      There is no doubt that Bill was a change agent. Somehow, he convinced key individuals to support his plan. I recall how John Collington would often say “my boss is bigger than your boss” when referring to Maude only for Perm Secs (and their Commercial Directors) to remind him that their boss was Heywood. Poor John had his fingers burnt with that one. Bill, however, got Heywood involved in key discussions and it seemed to be a canny card to play because things started to happen. But the overall concept was fundamentally undermined by the delivery. I won’t go into too much detail only to say that many Crown Reps weren’t very good. (Stephen Allott and Nicholas Griffin were very good but perhaps it’s because they seemed to ignore what Bill told them to do…). Then Bill also introduced the Complex Commercial Transactions team. (Incredulously, he was going to call it the ‘big deal team’ but i imagine someone with a little common sense convinced him otherwise.) This team was/is almost entirely populated with cast-offs from Departments and ex-consultants who didn’t quite make it in industry. As a client/customer of this team, it was/is a shocking experience. Its purpose was simple – get involved in anything that looks complex, turn up to meetings, add no value, claim all of the savings. The previous GPS model never changed and is still a massive framework factory. And the data is still pants.

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