The chief exec gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Crown Commercial Service's role during the fall of Kabul and the coronavirus pandemic

When Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, evacuees didn’t have time to pack. As thousands of people arrived across the UK, hungry and tired, airports began declaring a state of emergency as they ran low on food and other essentials while refugees waited for admin to be completed.

The Crown Commercial Service stepped in to set up a supply chain and logistics operation, calling on existing suppliers and other retailers to bring in food and sanitary products, as well as blankets and nappies for the days-old babies who had arrived at Birmingham, Manchester and Heathrow airports.

“We set up a 24/7 service. I didn’t even have to ask the staff to do it; they decided themselves and rotad themselves to do email and phone calls because that’s what they needed to do,” CCS’s chief executive, Simon Tse, says.

The team set about procuring essentials, including working directly with manufacturers to enable donations of highly-regulated products like baby formula. “We were very transparent. In some places we were saying ‘we don’t have a commercial agreement with you, but this is a state of crisis and we need some help here’. And actually, they said ‘yes, as part of our corporate social responsibility agenda, we’ll help you’,” Tse says.

The team sourced 150,000 items altogether, including 40,000 donations. By 11pm on 27 August, all three airports confirmed that their requirements had been met.

“We set up a 24/7 service. I didn’t even have to ask the staff to do it; they decided themselves and rotad themselves to do email and phone calls because that’s what they needed to do"

CCS is used to being what Tse calls the “silent partner in the background” – both in ordinary times and in crisis. From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, staff were working with the Foreign Office to help repatriate British nationals from Wuhan, then with the Department of Health and Social Care to secure coaches to transport them from RAF bases to quarantine facility on the Wirral.

Since then, departments have signed countless contracts for testing labs, mobile testing units, cleaning services and other Covid necessities. The Department for Education had to source free school meal vouchers and more than a million laptops and other devices as it scrambled to manage the transition to remote learning when schools closed during the first lockdown. Hotel rooms were needed to allow lorry drivers entering the UK to self-isolate after being tested at Dover. “Who were the ones that were advising behind [the scenes], and in some cases placing the contracts? CCS,” Tse says.

* * *

The government spends around £290bn a year on buying things. Around £120bn of this is spent on common goods and services – everything from office stationery to the construction of new hospitals.
At any one time, CCS is running between 80 and 100 commercial agreements that its customers – which include both central government and wider public sector organisations – can use to procure those goods and services. Four years ago, £12.7bn was spent through those agreements. By the end of this year, Tse says that figure could more than double to £27bn. 

“There are lots of things that we are doing as an organisation to make certain that we’re leveraging the power of that spend, in what we say to the marketplaces,” Tse says. In other words, CCS is using its immense buying power to support government’s goals – such as trying to reach net zero emissions and to promote social value.

CCS specialists and account managers advise departments on how to refine their bid criteria – one of public sector organisations’ biggest challenges – “on a daily basis”, Tse says. These issues are also built into CCS’s frameworks. 

Headshot of Simon Tse wearing glasses and a suitFurniture manufacturers on CCS’s commercial agreements, for example, are signed up to the Greening Government commitments – which aim to reduce departments’ environmental impact by cutting waste and using resources efficiently. Among other things, that means companies are expected to cut down on non-recyclable packaging.

CSW wonders if CCS has encountered resistance when doing this – but Tse says there has been little pushback so far, partly because the opportunity to access lucrative government contracts is a strong incentive. “The feedback from my team is that the supply industry is recognising that they want to contribute to these things. Whether it be carbon net zero or social value, what they’re saying is, ‘how do we get behind the policies that government is coming forward with, so that we can position ourselves in a strong way to win business from the public sector?’”

Departments have no obligation to use CCS’s commercial agreements. Instead, the service operates on what Tse calls an “open-door” basis. But, he says, “as soon as we start the conversation about carbon net zero and social value, what we’re finding is that customers are massively receptive to it. And in some cases, they’re actually coming to us and saying, ‘what can you do to help us with this?’ So I can see there’s been a sea change in terms of these two particular agendas.”

One of the measures the Cabinet Office proposed in its Transforming Public Procurement green paper in late 2020 was the creation of a central digital platform for commercial data. At the moment, suppliers have to provide details of their accounts, liabilities and other data for every CCS agreement that they are part of. “Worse, everyone that then runs a procurement off one of my agreements will be asked for exactly the same information. Think of the burden that creates,” Tse says.

The new platform would require suppliers to provide that data only once to qualify for any public sector procurement exercise. The idea has proved popular: 80% of the hundreds of responses to a consultation on the reforms last year approved.

As well as cutting down bureaucracy, the centralised model will give buyers – from government agencies to local authorities and NHS trusts – access to information on suppliers’ past performance on things like net zero or social value. “I think there will be more and more requirement to put that information in an intelligent way into a platform that then gives transparency,” Tse says.

“Up to now, we’ve not been able to take past performance into consideration. But it’s one of the key planks within the new public procurement policy statement"

“Up to now, we’ve not been able to take past performance into consideration. But moving forward, it’s one of the key planks within the new public procurement policy statement… so you can start to see how the parts of the jigsaw connect together.”

At the moment, CCS and the Cabinet Office are looking at how to “operationalise” that past-performance information, Tse says. CCS will then educate organisations on how to implement the policy changes.

Meanwhile, CCS is helping departments to improve contract management. When Tse became chief exec in 2018, he was aware of two things: government was “not necessarily good” at placing contracts, and it was also “not that good” at managing the contracts once it had awarded them.

“Well, we’ve done a heck of a lot of fixing the first one in terms of the type of contracts that are now awarded,” he says, nodding to the doubling of spending via CCS agreements in recent years. To address the second point, Tse’s organisation recently ran a pilot scheme funding the training of contract managers for public sector customers, which he says had “tremendous” feedback and could lead to a wider rollout.

* * *

Public procurement” may not be a phrase that has typically captured the imagination – but events of the last few years have brought government contracts under close scrutiny. Huge deals awarded during the pandemic and Brexit preparations led to ever-louder calls for transparency about the way contracts are awarded.

There have been particular questions raised about the purchasing of personal protective equipment during Covid, and the use of emergency procurement regulations to award contracts outside the normal tender process.

Regulations are a matter for the Cabinet Office, not CCS, so Tse opts not to talk about what he calls the “probity side” of PPE procurement. CCS’s role was to ensure the deals it was involved with were compliant and, Tse says, “my observation from the contracts that I’ve looked at is there was nothing inappropriate around them”.

“We started to get involved in PPE procurement in the early days… there’s a risk in some of these things. But during times of crisis, you try to do the right thing”

He goes on: “You’re in a crisis situation – we started to get involved in [PPE procurement] in the early days, but actually, it was very apparent that everyone was stepping over each other’s toes. And globally, the prices were being inflated and so on… So yes, there’s a risk in some of these things. There always is. But during times of crisis, you try to do the right thing.”

The Boardman review into pandemic procurement, published at the end of 2020, included stern warnings on the need to improve contingency planning and organisational structures across government; but its observations concerning CCS were less about compliance and more about communication.

The review found that when Cabinet Office and CCS teams were deployed to support pandemic response programmes, not everyone they came into contact with was clear on what the different groups of commercial specialists did. The review called for “more clarity and communication” of their respective roles.

Some officials, Boardman found, were “aware that there was a pool of specialist resources in the Cabinet Office, including in CCS, but were not sure how to access it for greatest effect”. At times, that hindered CCS’s ability to support departments. Boardman called for the commercial service to review “whether and how best to broaden the scope of its products and services in a crisis situation to maximise the impact of its skilled resources”.

Tse and the CCS board have been considering the recommendation, he says, “so in the event that there is something else, it becomes more clear what our role is in some of these things”.

This was not CCS’s only brush with Boardman – Tse has also had to answer to both the reviewer and parliament’s Public Accounts Committee for CCS’s role in the awarding of a contract to provide an early-payments scheme for pharmacies to Greensill Capital. The supply-chain finance firm was running the scheme for DHSC at the time it collapsed in March 2021. But Tse says CCS fared well in last year’s review into the use of supply-chain finance. “From a CCS perspective, we did everything in the appropriate way. We didn’t break the regulations, we didn’t break the rules,” he says.

This is an extract from the cover interview of the February 2022 issue of CSW. Read the second half of CSW's interview with Simon Tse, in which he discusses his role as Cabinet Office race champion, here.

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