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13 March 2013 | Anna Reynolds
The civil service lacks commercial expertise and is losing skilled procurement staff to the private sector, MPs have been told.
Speaking at yesterday’s Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) hearing into public procurement,
Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP and committee chairman, asked if civil servants can learn commercial skills, or if it is a natural aptitude some people have and others don’t.
Paul Chapman, director of the Major Projects Leadership Academy, described commercial nous such as knowing how to get a good deal and being comfortable with risk. Chapman said the civil service is so “bogged down with administration”, it is too focused on potential risks. Jenkin agreed, adding by being so risk averse the civil service “ends up adding risk and delay to projects”.
Chapman said the “squeeze for efficiency” in the public sector means not enough money is being spent on training and experience is lost through down-sizing and employees moving on.
Tim Heywood, director, public sector and procurement at law firm Burges Salmon said civil service staff are leaving to join the private sector. He added there is a particular gap in commercial skills and expertise in large IT contracts. But Heywood said progress is being made to bring procurement to the centre stage in the public sector: “To have a minister driving that is a huge plus.”
Jenkin added that “the civil service frowns upon paying more commercial salaries”, which is one reason why procurement professionals leave.
Also giving evidence to the committee, Tim Cummins, CEO of the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management, said the challenges around procurement in the civil service include a lack of confidence in career path and career potential. He said there is a correlation between salary and contribution that is not always acknowledged or rewarded. “People are constantly moving on. Gaining the right procurement skills takes time and continuity. You don’t get this in the civil service,” he said.