The End of an Era – Looking Back at Bill Crothers’ Time as the UK Government’s Chief Commercial Officer (Part 5)

(Continuing our reflections on Bill Crothers'  time as the UK Government’s Chief Commercial Officer. Today we have the final instalment; part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here) and part 4 here)

Now, back to our discussion, what about the elephant in the room - the charge that Crothers' style was overly abrasive and ended up upsetting senior people on the supply side, as well as in other parts of government procurement?

Crothers is confident that if we spoke to the senior executives in firms such as Serco and G4S (where he was part of well-publicised negotiations to sort out major issues), they would say he handled them very fairly - "firmly but fairly". He says he was very aware of the responsibility he and government has when making big decisions that really impact these firms, their staff and shareholders. "I think most of the CEOs I've worked with would be positive about their dealings with me".  (Certainly the worst stories we heard about senior supplier representatives being treated disrespectfully featured mid-level Cabinet Office people, who perhaps had got over-excited by their supposed power!)

But what about his relationship with procurement leadership in the departments?  He is keen to stress that the improvements made were “very much a team effort” and many others deserve credit, particularly those key commercial leaders across Whitehall. But it also sounds like he has been doing a bit of self-analysis here.

"I'm very passionate and I really care, I also get very focused and I'm very numerate and analytical. That's all a strength and a weakness! I can be challenging and that works fine in a one to one situation - but sometimes in meetings I can come across as perhaps picking on an individual, which can be uncomfortable".

He says he has become more aware of that, and that he never set out to embarrass people, but he will push - "why don't those numbers add up? What does that mean? Why haven't you done this?"  He acknowledges at times that is a failing, although we should add that we know people who have  thoroughly enjoyed working with him too,

He also says with a touch of irony that "there are plenty of people who I've never met who seem to have strong opinions about me!"  He feels that his own teams have been positive about working with him over the years, and he points out one key factor that is easy to forget.

"I can be bloody-minded, but you should also remember I had a pretty tough "boss" in Francis Maude. And I really wanted to make a difference, that's why I joined, so making money and friends were not my main drivers".

He does come across as a genuinely passionate individual, and it may well be that sometimes this takes precedence over the sort of calculated behaviour we normally see from senior civil servants. His criticism of suppliers on Radio 4 for instance was something you would never see from a career civil servant - but although we thought it was inadvisable at the time, on reflection, it suggests that this was his passion winning out over the usual caution! And we probably did need the robustness of Crothers and Maude to push back on some of the more egregious supplier behaviour.

So, why is he going now, having seen a transition to a new minister in Matt Hancock?

"I felt the time was right. I've come to the point where I can see all the improvements we have made, I'm not complacent but you need someone fresh to say, "this really needs changing" and have that new vision. I'm a disruptor by nature and I think I showed that, but now is the time to pass the baton".

Naturally, we talked about what he is going to do next.  He wants to build a portfolio of activities - he  wants to make a difference and has  worked on the Board of some charities and been a school governor so that is one area of interest. "I want to do things that are fun, interesting. I'm a board adviser to Greensill Capital - I think Spend Matters knows Lex Greensill - I'm learning about supply chain finance, I'm not an expert but I hope I can offer a little wisdom and experience there. Then we'll see what else comes up".

So, our sincere thanks to Bill Crothers for providing that insight into what has been a fascinating period for public sector procurement. He has certainly been the highest profile leader for the procurement profession in the public sector we've seen, and Francis Maude was the most interested and knowledgeable minister we have ever had in terms of his interest in commercial activities.

Is central government procurement and commercial activities in a better state than five years ago? We'll leave that to our readers to decide. The jury is still out on CCS, but in area such as capability, and that fundamental rebalancing the relationship between suppliers and buyers, there were certainly some major ticks in the "positives" column during the Maude / Crothers period.

Voices (4)

  1. Effwhitt:

    Anyone seen the ads for Bill’s replacement?

    Seems they’ve been interviewing and have a name in mind – to be announced shortly?

    But I’m struggling to find evidence of the process…

  2. Secret Squirrel:

    The one thing that even I, as a pretty trenchant critic, couldn’t fault Bill for is his passion. Yes, the analysis and the execution was lacking but he definitely tried to make it better.

    And I admire the honesty in “money and friends were not my main drivers.” The issue in the execution though often came from the second part. The external customer side focus was lacking and the change was something to be driven through. And internally, the approach was (as a caricature) that everything that had gone by and the people who had done it were all rubbish and needed to be replaced. That led to a huge influx of external people and interims who really couldn’t navigate the politics or the complexities and also led to the frustrations.

    1. Bill:

      Bill was a marmite character.
      One person decribed him as the most commercial they’d ever met (though that person was twice promoted by Bill).
      While another regularly described him as something with four letters beginning with a ‘c’.
      I will always have mixed views. He most certainly stirred things up and got it right where Collington got it wrong.
      On the other hand, he recruited in and/or promoted so many totally ineffective people. It wasn’t so much a talent pool but a puddle. And the endless list of examples – stories to reinforce an idea – were painful.
      His only legacy is a very expensive experiment. And his undeserved CB.

  3. Dr Gordy:

    Good series Pete, it says a lot for Bill Crothers that he was prepared to take part and appears to have been so honest.

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