Yet Another “Minister for Procurement” Takes the Government Commercial Hot Seat

With all the Carillion “excitement”, we’ve somewhat ignored the recent UK government ministerial reshuffle last week, which turned out not quite as planned for Prime Minister Teresa May.

A couple of moves she wanted didn’t happen as Ministers resisted; we do wonder why leaders don’t check out in advance how key people feel about what is proposed!

Anyway, the Cabinet Office, the government department that holds overall responsibility for public procurement, saw changes again. Their most senior Minister, Damian Green, had to step down recently after a pornography scandal, so at Cabinet level David Lidington steps in. And at junior minister level, Caroline Nokes, who had the efficiency portfolio, including procurement, was moved to become a Home Office Minister with the immigration policy brief.

That’s probably a good move for her, but it means we will have our fourth minister in less than three years with the procurement brief. Matt Hancock held it from the 2015 election to July 2016, when Ben Gummer moved into the role. But he lost his seat unexpectedly as an member of parliament in June 2017 after the general election, at which point Damian Green was moved into the more senior Cabinet level role with Caroline Nokes working for him and holding that procurement responsibility.

Now we will have Oliver Dowden as the minister who will drive procurement performance and improvement (we hope). He went to a comprehensive school near Watford then studied law at Cambridge, was an adviser to Tory politicians, then worked in a PR firm, then was Prime Minister David Cameron’s deputy Chief of Staff until he won the seat of Hertsmere in 2015 – a potential Cabinet Minister, we would think, he is still only 39.

Clearly a very bright bloke, but not someone with real-life business or commercial experience unfortunately. He now has a brief including not just commercial and procurement matters but the digital agenda, government property and “public appointments”.

We just hope he is in the role long enough to gain some understanding of the issues. Francis Maude was really the last Minister to have a real interest in and understanding of public procurement, and his tenure from 2010-15 saw many changes. And while he made some arguably unsuccessful and even ill-advised moves, he did at least try to move things forward, and he certainly raised the profile of procurement and commercial activities.

The recent rapid turnover has done little for the profile of procurement unfortunately. Nokes cannot have had time to build any understanding of the issues and indeed we have no evidence she did anything at all in terms of policy initiatives or changes. We might argue she did at least let Gareth Rhys Williams and Malcom Harrison get on with things, but think how much time they must have wasted in recent months briefing a Minister (whose previous business experience was as CEO of the National Pony Society) on these matters.

Now they have to start again with Dowden. “So Minister, let me explain why we can’t hit the 33% SME spend target and why it is a stupid idea anyway …” But you have to feel a little sorry for him and particular Lidington, who walked into the Carillion scandal within days of their appointments!

Finally, just in case you think that Oxbridge doesn’t still dominate British politics, it’s interesting to look at the line of politicians holding the procurement brief.

Maude – Cambridge

Hancock – Oxford (then a MPhil from Cambridge)

Gummer – starred double first from Cambridge

Green – Oxford

Lidington – Cambridge (inc. PhD)

Dowden – Cambridge

We would also point out just how clever these folk are – Gummer with his starred double first, Dowden making it to Cambridge from a Watford comprehensive, and Lidington not only being Dr. Lidington but leading the Sidney Sussex college team to victory in the 1979 University Challenge competition – then doing the same in the alumni “champion of champions” series in 2002!

So they both should be smart enough to “get” procurement, if they see it as enough of a priority to spend any time on it amongst many other responsibilities. We hope they do.

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Voices (2)

  1. Charlie Middleton:

    Caroline Noakes may have let Malcolm Harrison get on with things, but CCS is still woefully inefficient and ineffective. Look at the continuing debacle of the Management Consultancy Framework. Spent months designing a framework, suppliers bid on it, spent months evaluating it and then at the last minute found a “construct error” and had to bin the key lot. Then put out a PIN saying they were expecting to issue a new ITT in mid October, missed that date and in late November said it was coming out mid December, missed that date and then said at the start of January it would come out mid January. Guess what, still not out.

    Oliver Dowden needs to get a grip on CCS and quickly. It is supposed to be the centre of excellence for public procurement but time and time again it looks like a complete shambles.

  2. Procurement has not changed in a decade:

    With the “digital agenda” on his list of activities, one would assume (and would happily bet) that procurement will not be a priority.

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