When the new government renegotiated its contracts with a set of major suppliers two years ago, it asked them to suggest ways in which the civil service could make savings by, for example, reducing the duplication of work or cutting back office costs. But the companies’ response, said Crothers, revealed “a view that this government had come in and there was going to be lots of new business and they didn’t have to try too hard. So when they came with good ideas, they weren’t well thought-through. They’d say things like: ‘We can save X hundreds of millions of pounds in this department,’ and you would say: ‘What’s the investment required?’, and they’d say: ‘Well, we haven’t worked that out.’ And you’d say: ‘Have you taken redundancy into account?’, and they’d say: ‘Oh, we haven’t thought about that.’ So they were ill-thought-through business propositions.”
In recent weeks the government has had some of its big suppliers back in again, Crothers explained, and asked them to have another go at suggesting ways to improve Whitehall’s efficiency – but so far the results have again been disappointing. “The first few meetings we’ve had, I’m afraid the quality of propositions wasn’t any better than two years ago,” he said. “It’s just not businesslike. We asked them to go away and think again, because we really want parts of the public service to be delivered differently. We do think there’s a hybrid; a better way. But truthfully, I don’t think their business propositions would pass muster if they were presenting them internally for their own business. They have to take us seriously as a client. We’re still asking, and we’re keen – but they need to sharpen up their act.”
There are big opportunities in government if suppliers are willing to present a strong business case, Crothers added, but “if they come and simply say: ‘Oh, we just outsource,’ they’re not working hard enough. They need to work as hard with us as they would with the best in the private sector; and they wouldn’t go into the best of the private sector in the way they come into us. I’m generalising, okay, and there are some suppliers who are better than others, and so on. But as a general position, from my experience in the private sector they would work a lot harder. And when I say work, I mean really sharpen an idea, craft it, tune it up, get a second check, get the best from another industry, get some global input. They don’t do that in the way I’d expect.”
Bill Crothers was appointed chief procurement officer in July, bringing together the procurement head’s role with his own previous job as the Cabinet Office’s executive director of commercial relationships. He oversees the crown representatives, the Government Procurement Service, procurement reform and the procurement profession.
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