By Tony Collins
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has told suppliers that the Government now forbids the use of consultants in central government procurements without his express agreement.
In a speech, Maude said “Too often in the past we have defaulted into a comfort zone of hiring external consultants to run any kind of complex procurements…
“It reduces the need and ability for public officials to develop the necessary skills. And it can happen that consultants being paid on day rates have no incentive to get procurements finished speedily, nor to drive simplicity.
“Far too many procurements feature absurdly over-prescriptive requirements. We should be procuring on the basis of the outcomes and outputs we seek, not the detailed inputs. We should be focusing on the “what”, not the “how”.
“This kind of procurement drives out innovative and competitive suppliers. So we will ensure that in future we focus on outputs and outcomes. And we now forbid the use of consultants in central government procurements without my express agreement.
“Further in central Government we will insist that every official running a significant procurement is trained to run it swiftly and efficiently.”
Maude says he wants to ensure that officials and politicians are “equipped with the skills to engage knowledgeably and confidently with suppliers”.
The Cabinet Office says it is “mandating” that all civil servants responsible for running major procurements are trained in the Government’s new approach.
Maude says he wants the Government to have access to the widest range of the best suppliers.
“The only question we will consider when choosing suppliers is who will give us the best cost effective service. In the past people thought there was some kind of binary choice of the government providing a service or outsourcing. It didn’t get us the best services.
“What we’re interested in is better business models, which will include mutuals. And other kinds of different providers – social enterprises, charities, joint ventures.”
He added: “So while Germany and France nurture mutually beneficial long-term relationships with their key suppliers – the British public sector has taken a speed dating approach to ours.
“It’s not even as if this approach has led to outstandingly good purchasing delivering brilliantly cheap deals. Actually the reverse. Because we have made it really difficult and expensive for smaller British suppliers even to bid for business, we’ve excluded some of the most innovative and competitive suppliers from doing business with us and for us.
“This already matters a very great deal. But it’s going to matter even more in future. For as we set out in our Open Public Services White Paper we expect ever more of our public services to be delivered not by the public sector itself but from outside, whether by mutuals, joint ventures, social or charitable enterprises or conventional commercial providers.
“This is a market that is going to increase in size and scale.
“So: an approach that hurts British businesses and British jobs; delivering poor value for the taxpayer: that’s what the Coalition Government inherited. And it’s going to change.”
Maude talks about change with conviction, which is why some senior civil servants hope he’ll move on soon. Until that happens the civil service will support the need for change while doing little or nothing differently: civil servants haven’t even allowed Maude to carry out his promise of publishing “Gateway” reviews while they are still current.
But there are some things Maude can do whether the civil servants like it or not, such as ban consultants from buying exercises, which should stop some procurements from becoming unnecessarily complex and prolonged; and it is through Maude’s influence that a new and deeply unattractive NPfIT deal with CSC has not been signed.
But it’s only when Maude beats his chest and roars, and gives his full support to those civil servants who are equally passionate about change, that structural reform will happen.
And it needs to happen soon because Maude and the coalition will not be around forever – unlike the change-resisters within the civil service.