Thursday, 25 July 2013

The greener grass of the Crown Commercial Service

We know two things: firstly, that the grass is always greener on the other side, and secondly, a bad workman always blames his tools. That's how I see the announcement of the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) - it is not the panacea to public procurement problems in the UK but a convenient placebo to buy time. It looks like a good idea but when we eventually get there, where we came from can be expected to look greener than where we have arrived.

There is no perfect organisational structure for procurement, just the most appropriate set of trade-offs for a given time. I have absolutely no doubt that if we had a centralised procurement structure at the present time, we would have just heard an announcement that decentralisation was the answer. Quite simply the grass will always be greener on the other side and the tools of the 'existing structure' are easy to blame for current failures (in this case the structure).

But more fundamentally, what is the problem we are trying to solve at the present time?

Are we seeing the green shoots of a recovery or looking at a deteriorating economy? Let's give the economy the benefit of the doubt and say we're looking at recovery - I don't think centralising will accelerate the recovery and remotely help small businesses or investment. We don't have enough organisations who are likely, at the present time, to satisfy the qualifying criteria for the 'bigger is better' contracts we can expect from the CCS.

But then think of the policy objectives the CCS will be asked to deliver - it does not strike me we have  a consensus view of of what procurement aims to achieve at the present time. For example, is it cost reduction or wider social objectives? Without that clarity what are the outcomes CCS should be measured against? Even if there were that clarity at the present time, by the time CCS hits the road we will be starting to see the warm-up routines for the next election - should the objectives be set for the recovery and can they be flexible enough to reflect a new government's manifesto?

Is there a readiness to change? How on earth could any causal observer of public procurement believe there is a readiness to change to the CCS at the minute. We continue on the hamster's wheel of making little progress on winning hearts and minds towards more collaborative procurement. Until the stakeholders hearts and minds are won, all we can expect are 'work arounds'.

Have we the skills? Well we know there are issues with contract management, but that could be solved without CCS. Would it not be better to get on top of contract management before you make the contracts bugger? Even if we got on top of contract management, we have almost no evidence of effective risk management and performance management - getting bigger is unlikely to cure that, on the contrary just magnify the detrimental impact.

I could go on but that doesn't strike me as useful, really what I'm trying to say is that we can make any structure work but we need to recognise there is no perfect structure. We can make any structure work but to do that we need a clear vision and leadership, and clarity of the outcomes to be achieved. We can make any structure work but to do that we need the right culture and skills. We can make any structure work but we need a readiness to change, excellent stakeholder engagement, change management, risk and performance management. Yes, we could make CCS work but at the present time the key ingredients just aren't in place nor are they likely to be within the envisioned timescale. We could make CCS work but history suggests it won't unless we get the foundations in place - but then if we got the foundations in place would we even need the cost of changing to CCS?

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