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Part 3: The UK Government Procurement Transformation

Spotlight on Calibre and Capability

The recalibration of salaries and public sector pension arrangements for procurement officers, discussed in part two of this series, was unprecedented. So, it was unsurprising that Treasury’s agreement to permit these changes came with a couple of significant strings attached.

Treasury tests the new approach

Firstly, Treasury needed to be satisfied that the individuals being employed on these unusually high salaries were genuinely high calibre. The Government Commercial Organisation’s (GCO) response was to decree that applicants would only be accepted if they passed a highly demanding Assessment & Development Centre program with an A grade. It remains the case that GCO-employed permanent staff – whether newly recruited or transferring from elsewhere in the civil service – have all achieved this benchmark.

Secondly, there was a need to provide evidence of the increasing capability at a functional level, and that needed to be within individual departments. A comprehensive set of Government Commercial Operating Standards was developed, and this has been used to assess and improve capability and rigour within the procurement function at the departmental level.

Whilst capability development was primarily driven from the corporate centre of the GCO, it also engendered a high degree of collaboration and interaction between commercial functions in departments, even though maturity levels differed between departments across the various standards.

As procurement teams matured it became increasingly commonplace for one department to give another a leg-up for specific support, and this would often be reciprocated in other ways. This spontaneous type of collaboration was a clear indicator that higher professional standards were increasingly being expressed in the organisational culture of departments.

An Extensive Uplift in Capability

One of the Central Government’s commercial entities – which shall remain nameless – was judged by a 2014-15 Commercial Capability Review to be at the bottom of the league. Its Chief Financial Officer responded by establishing a program of capability uplift, supported by an external partner that had been engaged to effect the required transformation. Within two years that commercial organisation had become one of the ‘functions to watch’ – and this was heralded as one of many significant success stories across government.

Without a doubt, capability transformation has been achieved across government, and it continues. Whereas government procurement had historically, and somewhat cruelly, been seen as something of a laggard in the procurement profession, those in the know would agree that not only has the Central Government achieved capability parity with the UK private sector in some areas, but it is arguably now the leading light.

One problem that could emerge, and it is the one that afflicts public and private sector organisations alike, is how to continue to reform effectively whilst also managing corporate memory to cement new practices and ensure they are passed on. It was not enough for the new practices to be applied, rather, they had to survive and continue to serve their grand purpose. How that happened in the UK is discussed in the fourth and concluding part of this series.

“…it brought a degree of trust amongst the commercial leadership as they now all knew that they were of a similar standard in their commercial skills”
Gareth Rhys-Williams, Government Chief Commercial Officer