Commercial 'pixie dust' needed for civil servants

20 April 2017

The dynamic between public sector buyers and their suppliers needs to be rebalanced, one of the Crown Commercial Service’s (CCS) new strategic category directors has said.

Peter Lawson, who joined the CCS in October, said the relationship dynamic weighed too heavily towards suppliers, which often did a good job of managing the public sector rather than vice versa. “That balance needs to shift a little bit, and that doesn’t happen by magic,” he said.

“The real challenge I think for us – how do we sprinkle pixie dust on the stakeholders and budget holders within the public sector to become a little bit more commercial.”

Speaking at the Procurex conference in London today, Lawson said commercial capabilities were skills the government was developing.

“I think it's fair to say sometimes in the past our reputation has not been always glowing... Some new people [have joined] the CCS, I’m one of them,” he said. “I think there’s an absolute desire to upskill and improve the way in which we work with our many and varied stakeholders and customers.” Digitalisation, programme and project management and commercial capabilities were the three broad skill sets that needed development, he said.

“What are we doing individually and collectively to encourage that commercial capability in our own organisations and in ourselves personally?” he said. “There are lessons for us… but crucially those lessons aren’t really realised unless we share and develop those across the public sector.”

Lawson was brought as strategic category director for people last year, joining from facilities management firm ISS. Around the same time Samantha Ulyatt was brought in from Babcock International to be strategic category director for buildings. David Skinner was promoted internally to become strategic category director for corporate solutions.

CSS was criticised by the NAO in December 2016 for not providing value for money. More recently a Public Accounts Committee inquiry heard it was not properly aggregating departmental spend because it was too focused on increasing the volumes it was responsible for.

Public sector buyers should rethink what is meant by “value for every pound spent”, said Lawson. “We’re not trying to spend money we’re actually trying to invest money, public money, for a return. Let’s be very clear about what that return is.”

New innovations CCS was working on include an e-procurement platform – “think Amazon-esque” – and the use of e-auctions, said Lawson. The latter have already driven double digit savings, but “the real crucial thing” would be collaboration. “How do we aggregate the demands across many different public sector organisations to be able to put that to auction in a coordinated fashion to drive value for that community?

“We’ve done that with some collections of public sector bodies so far; our intention is to do much more with that.”

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