Category Archives: private sector

Central buying of IT and other services is a bit of a shambles – just what Sir Humphrey wants?

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office entrance

Cabinet Office entrance

Like the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service was set up as a laudable attempt to cut the huge costs of running central government.

The Cabinet Office under Francis Maude set up the Crown Commercial Service [CCS] in 2014 to cut the costs of buying common products and services for Whitehall and the wider public sector including the NHS and police.

It has a mandate to buy commodity IT, other products and services and whatever can be bought in bulk. It has had some success – for example with negotiating lower prices for software licences needed across Whitehall. The skills and knowledge of its civil servants are well regarded.

But, like the Government Digital Service, CCS has had limited support from permanent secretaries and other senior officials who’d prefer to protect their autonomy.

It has also been hindered by unachievable promises of billions of pounds in savings. Even CCS’s own managers at the time regarded the Cabinet Office’s plans for huge savings as over-optimistic.

Yesterday [13 December 2016] the National Audit Office published a report that questioned whether CCS has paid its way, let alone cut public sector costs beyond what civil and public servants could have achieved without it.

CCS employed 790 full-time equivalent staff in 2015/16 and had operating costs in one year alone of £66.3m

This was the National Audit Office’s conclusion:

“CCS has not achieved value for money. The Cabinet Office underestimated the difficulty of implementing joint buying for government. With no business case or implementation plan CCS ran into difficulties. Net benefits have not been tracked so it cannot be shown that CCS has achieved more than the former Government Procurement Service would have.

“However, the strategic argument for joint buying remains strong and CCS is making significant changes to improve future services.”

Some of the NAO’s detailed findings:

  • The public sector spends £2.5bn directly with CCS – £8bn less than originally forecast.
  • Seven departments buy directly through CCS – 10 fewer than originally forecast
  • The forecast of £3.3bn net benefits from the creation of CCS over the four years to 2017-18 are  unlikely to materialise.
  • The National Audit Office says the actual net benefits of CCS to date are “unknown”.
  • The Cabinet Office did not track the overall benefits of creating CCS.
  • Most of the planned transfers of procurement staff from central departments and the wider public sector to CCS haven’t happened.
  • Where some of the workforce has transferred, some departments have rehired staff to replace those who transferred.
  • Departments continue to manage their own procurement teams, although they use CCS’s frameworks.
  • CCS was set up with the power to force central departments to use its bulk buying services. But that power wasn’t enforced.
  • The National Audit Office says it is “no longer clear whether CCS has a clear mandate that requires all departments to use it for direct buying… it no longer has a clear timetable or expectation that further departments will transfer staff or buying functions to CCS”.

It’s all a far cry from the expectations set by a Cabinet Office announcement in 2013 which said that CCS will “ensure maximum value for the taxpayer is extracted from every commercial relationship”.

The then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the time,

“The new Crown Commercial Service will ensure a step change in our commercial capability, giving government a much tighter grip on all aspects of its commercial performance, from market engagement through to contract management.”


Why CCS has failed so far to make much difference to Whitehall’s costs is not clear. It seems to have been hit by a combination of poor management at the outset, a high turnover of senior officials and ludicrously high expectations, combined with a civil service reluctance in central departments and the wider public sector to cede control over procurement to CCS –  even when it comes to common products and services.

The NAO report is a reminder of a fundamental flaw in the way government works: central departments can’t in practice be forced to do anything. They are a power unto themselves. The Cabinet Office has powers to mandate a change of practice and behaviour in central departments – to which Sir Humphrey can shrug his shoulders and change nothing

Even the Prime Minister is, in practice, powerless to force departments to do something they don’t want to do (except in the case of the miscarriage of justice that involved two Chinook pilots who were eventually cleared of gross negligence because the then defence secretary Liam Fox, through a series of manoeuvres, forced the MoD to set the finding aside).

The CCS may be doomed to failure unless the Cabinet Office rigorously enforces its mandate to make government departments use its buying services.

If the Cabinet Office does not enforce its power, Sir Humphrey will always protect his turf by arguing that the products and services his officials buy – including IT in general – are specific and are usually tailored to the department’s unique and complex needs.

Much to the relief of Sir Humphrey, Francis Maude, the battle-hardened enforcer at the Cabinet Office, has left the House of Commons. He has no comparable replacement.

Are all central initiatives aimed at making  a real dent in the costs of running Whitehall now doomed to failure?

Sir Humphrey knows the answer to that; and he’s wearing a knowing grin.

Crown Commercial Service – National Audit Office report


Osborne’s Budget speech may provide update on Coalition’s mutuals plans

By David Bicknell

Will Wednesday’s Budget bring further news on the Coalition’s plans and prospects for public sector mutuals?

Yesterday’s Independent believes it might. An article by Business Editor James Ashton suggests that Chancellor George Osborne  is likely to “talk up the progress made in Whitehall reforms” in his Budget statement.

It argues that “thousands of civil servants will be transferred into the private sector under a blueprint to shake up Whitehall that will be unveiled next month.”

Ashton suggests that new recommendations on spin-outs are due to be outlined  in a report by Stephen Kelly, the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Representative.

The report is expected to say that “there are numerous government operations that could be potentially commercialised, either through forging partnerships with outside firms or seeking capital injections.”

Related Link

Stephen Kelly – the man at the coal face of the Big Society

Understanding the politics of ‘stepping out’ to create a public sector mutual

By David Bicknell

I just read an excellent piece by Craig Dearden-Philips in the Guardian today about the politics involved in the spinning out of a public sector mutual.

He argues that if you, as a public manager, want to ‘step out’, you’ve not only got to do the numbers, you’ve also got to do the politics.

He suggests that politicians, or very senior executives, need three things. Firstly, they need to know if this fits in with the general tenor of where they see things going more widely in the organisation. Secondly, they want to know that the numbers add up.

And finally, and perhaps the most interesting, “politicians and senior managers need to know that they can influence the new body. For councillors and top executives, who are used to directly managing services, a spin-out can present a big operational and financial threat. They can no longer just recover a deficit elsewhere by plundering your budget. Nor, if they are no longer in charge, can they, in the event of a bad headline, tell voters they are putting a rocket under you! Again, the answer here lies in giving them a place at the table and moving the relationship from one governed by command and control to one where influence is exercised through a contract.”

Guardian Public Services Summit

MoD rules out mutual option in reorganisation of Defence Equipment and Support arm

By David Bicknell

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has ruled out choosing a spin-off mutual as one of the three models being considered for a re-organisation of the key Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) organisation.

Campaign4Change recently received a tip-off from an MoD insider who was concerned that the mutuals option had been ruled out.

The MoD has confirmed that there is no mutuals route, and that its three options will be:

*  A Trading Fund: where DE&S continues to be a part of the MoD but has a hard-charging regime. Its staff are civil service employees. 

* An Executive Non-Departmental Public Body: where DE&S remains in the public sector. Staff are public sector employees but not civil servants.

* A Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO): A private sector organisation. Staff are private sector employees with potentially some government secondees.

Asked why the mutuals option had been overlooked,  an MoD spokeswoman said, “Further to our conversation about the options that have been proposed for the future of DE&S, I can confirm that we’re not looking at mutuals. The reason for that is that simply, we do not consider it appropriate.

“We have considered a wide range of options for DE&S and centred analysis on three we believe will most suit the requirements of the organisation.  We have kept all stakeholders, including across central Government, aware of this analysis.” 

The MoD says the three options will be presented to ministers in due course who will decide on a preferred way forward.

Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) equips and supports the UK’s armed forces for current and future operations. Employing around 20,000 people, with a budget of some £14 billion, its headquarters is in Bristol with other sites across the UK and overseas.

DE&S acquires and supports equipment and services, including ships, aircraft, vehicles and weapons, information systems and satellite communications. As well as continuing to supply general requirements, food, clothing, medical and temporary accommodation, DE&S is also responsible for HM Naval Bases, the joint support chain and British Forces Post Office.

The case for partnership between mutuals and the private sector

By David Bicknell

I mentioned yesterday ongoing discussions over the role of the private sector in partnering with mutuals.

There is more grist to the mill here in this blog by Craig Dearden-Philips who argues that “the next year or two is crucial. Partnerships appear to be a sensible way to press on beyond the first wave of early adapters.”

Why the private sector is keen to be a Good Samaritan to new mutuals

By David Bicknell

There is a growing trickle of blogs, comments and discussions emerging around the idea of mutual joint ventures.

The mutuals concept has captured the imagination, even if precisely how they are going to be created; fund themselves; stand on their own two feet and compete in the commercial market has yet to evolve fully. And it will take some time.

Never one to pass up an opportunity, the private sector is now keen to offer itself as a Good Smaritan, lending a helping hand in helping mutuals get off the ground.

As a recent well-written paper from the Business Services Association puts it,  “…several barriers exist to realising the Government’s vision for mutuals. New mutuals spinning out of the public sector will face significant resource challenges – in terms of both expertise in areas such as human resources, finance and business planning, and start-up capital. Raising necessary capital will be a persistent problem for staff looking to form a mutual but lacking a trading history.

“A recent survey of British employee-owned companies found that one-third had difficulty accessing finance. Similarly, a number of studies have noted the “steep learning curve” faced by public sector employees when having to create a business plan, plot income generation for future years and develop marketing strategies – skills commonly required in the private sector. Partnering with a private sector provider through a mutual joint venture could offer a way of overcoming these barriers.”

Inevitably, there is a degree of self-interest here. As the Business Services Association guide  states, “there is a clear appetite amongst BSA members to enter joint venture agreements with, or as part of, new mutuals spinning out of the public sector.

“At the BSA-Pinsent Masons LLP 2011 annual lecture, Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Rt Hon Francis Maude said that the Government was open to hearing about new models from private providers partnering with mutuals to deliver public services. This put the ball firmly in the private sector’s court to consider how to rise to the Government’s challenge.”

It adds that the aim of the paper is therefore to be constructive, not to issue a list of requests for clarity or new demands of the Government, but rather how to work with the existing legislative landscape to make mutual joint ventures happen.

Nothing wrong with that idea. Joint ventures with the private sector may well turn out to be the way forward, provided the key words are mutual and joint. It is in no-one’s interests for a joint venture to be dressed up as a takeover.  As the title of the BSA’s document appositely puts it, it’s about “Making Mutuals Work.”