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Monday, December 19, 2016

Centralized Procurement: Theory vs Practice

In theory, theories work.  In practice, they often do not.  Whether practice does or does not comport with theory is often dependent on the vision the theorists have and convey vs the commitment and practices the practitioners decide to use to implement the theory. "'Tis many a slip twixt cup and lip", as they say.

The following is yet another example of a good idea gone wrong because it was gleefully exaggerated and politically oversold. Implementation requires good management, but so does planning. If you plan for the unreasonable, no amount of good management will get you to the final vision.

Cabinet Office did not get departmental buy-in for shared procurement plans, says spending watchdog

The UK government’s attempts to reform central buying through the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) was launched in April 2014, bringing in staff from the Government Procurement Service, with a mandate to buy common goods and services directly rather than simply creating frameworks for departments to use.

But a new report by the National Audit Office ("NAO") says the Cabinet Office was too reliant on this mandate, and “severely underestimated the difficulty of implementing joint buying across government”.
Cabinet Office underestimated difficulty of procurement reform, say auditors
In theory, central buying should achieve very large savings, the NAO said. But it was not clear what spending should be centralised. It said the Cabinet Office relied on a Cabinet committee mandate to get departments to transition services quickly, and did not consider how it would manage them once services were transitioned.

Overall, the CCS has not achieved its ambitions, which the NAO believes were not realistic. The Cabinet Office’s plan to create the service “wrongly estimated both the activities and the amount of goods and services that were appropriate to be bought centrally.” Auditors recommended that the Cabinet Office should reiterate the mandate for CCS in central government, and set clear expectations for those departments yet to transfer their buying of common goods and services to CCS.

Auditor general Amyas Morse said that without a sound overarching business case or a detailed implementation plan, it is not surprising that the Crown Commercial Service rapidly ran into difficulties. “It is particularly disappointing that the Cabinet Office has not tracked net costs and benefits,” he added. “Because of this, it is not possible to show that CCS has achieved more than departments would otherwise have achieved by buying common goods and services themselves.”
CCS centralised buying in the public sector isn’t working yet, but worth pursuing
Something’s not working somewhere. CCS was set up in 2014 with an objective of saving £3.3 billion in procurement spend by 2018. For the 2015/2016 period, it’s claimed that £521 million of savings can be attributed to CCS. Some £12.8 billion of spending by central government and public sector organisations uses CCS frameworks for the deals.

But the NAO concludes that it’s impossible to tell whether those would have occurred anyway without transferring buying responsibilities to CCS. In addition, these claimed savings were calculated on a different basis and are not directly comparable to the planned net benefits of £3.3 billion over four years. Most damning of all the criticisms is the one that states that to date CCS hasn’t actually done the job it was supposed to do.

The NAO goes on to suggest that a significant problem for CCS was lack of consistency of data and no common understanding of what can and can’t be centralised:
[CCS] did not have consistent information on what departments spend and there is no agreement with departments about what should be centralised and what should be bought locally. The Cabinet Office’s estimates of the common goods and services suitable for centralisation have varied from £8 billion to £15 billion. For example, all departments buy information technology, but many of these contracts are strategically important to the department and hard to specify centrally.
With all that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the NAO report notes that “from the start there was a rapid erosion in departments’ confidence in CCS” and that by 2015 the programme was “widely acknowledged to be in difficulty”.

Leaping to the defence of the Cabinet Office, John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service, says:
The Cabinet Office will always set ambitious targets for the work we do right in the heart of government. CCS has made huge strides in recent months, and we expect to see more and more savings as the changes we make take hold across departments. From the centre we will increase skills and bring in the talent needed to make sure every penny of taxpayers’ money is used to its absolute maximum.
That’s a pretty standard reaction to criticism from ‘Sir Humphrey’, coupled with a a mile-high statement of direction from the centre, but it doesn’t address the problems at hand.
CCS’s current management does not consider [CCS original] plan to have been achievable as it thinks the plan wrongly estimated the amount of common goods and services appropriate for centralisation, and the buying services which should be undertaken centrally. CCS’s current management also believe the original plan did not adequately define the activities that customers would still need to carry out.
For all its criticism, the NAO admits that the “strategic argument for joint buying remains strong” and that the right structures and management is now being put in place. Since launch in 2014, only four of the original 11 board and senior management team at CCS have stayed in site. But the second half of this year has seen CCS bring on board four senior managers with “significant operational experience”.

[The author of this article, Stuart Lauchlan, offers his take:] Any kind of significant reform in government is going to take time, dedication and a willingness to challenge the status quo. Making bold policy declarations isn’t enough in its own right. One of my favourite phrases here is that of the political will meets the administrative won’t. That demands strong and coherent leadership from the centre and that’s something that undermined CCS in its early days.
My take: When even the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, sketches of plans and lofty marketing almost always certainly will.

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