Government departments ignoring purchasing decisions

14 May 2013

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14 May 2013 | Adam Leach

Procurement directions from the Cabinet Office are failing to be passed down through the government machine due to poor reporting links and the reluctance of senior civil servants to change.

Appearing before the Public Administration Select Committee yesterday, Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, told MPs while central purchasing of common goods and services has increased, more progress is needed.

Citing reluctance from senior civil servants to follow central guidance from the Cabinet Office and weak reporting lines between commercial directors as barriers to progress, Maude expressed his frustration at the situation.

He told the committee: “You can’t have a functioning organisation where a decision [is] collectively made [that] people in the departments feel able to ignore.” He told the committee that while government chief operating officer Stephen Kelly, and chief procurement officer Bill Crothers, set a “very clear direction” for the commercial service, it quickly becomes “very dispersed”.

To rectify this disparity between central and departmental objectives, the links between the Cabinet Office central team and the various commercial directors will be strengthened. Maude told the committee he will take charge of ensuring this happens, together with the joint leaders of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood.

During the hearing, Maude gave a number of frank observations about the state of procurement within central government. He voiced his displeasure at still encountering “out of date” procurements, which he identified as “long”, “opaque” and “massively” out of reach of SMEs. He reiterated his desire to see contracts across the public sector broken up into smaller lots, covering shorter periods of time and for them to be more widely promoted.

On the Public Service (Social Value) Act, which requires public authorities to consider how procurement can deliver social and environmental value, he praised Conservative MP Chris White for getting it through parliament. But he told the committee that his predilection was to “keep things simple and straightforward”, not letting anything get in the way of achieving the best deal.

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