Cabinet office permanent secretary John Manzoni, right, and CSS chief executive Malcolm Harrison appeared in front of the Public Accounts Committee ©
Cabinet office permanent secretary John Manzoni, right, and CSS chief executive Malcolm Harrison appeared in front of the Public Accounts Committee ©

Crown Commercial Service's problems blamed on rushed spend aggregation

18 January 2017

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) was so focused on increasing its volume of centralised purchases that it failed to properly aggregate them, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of CCS, admitted to members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the government’s centralised procurement service's “absolute focus” on transitioning departmental spend meant it took on operational functions that would have been better left closer to the departmental buyer.

“A lot of the focus of CCS became how do we ensure those operational tasks – which were often bespoke to individual departments – how were they executed?” he said.

Harrison added that CCS had since “standardised the service, to narrow it, to deepen it and to focus it”.

The inquiry into CCS, which is ongoing, was launched following a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in which the public spending watchdog said CCS had not yet achieved value for money. It also criticised it for failing to integrate or standardise the services brought under its remit. 

The NAO report also said CCS failed to develop a business model. When asked what changes and additional risk assessments had been put in place to address this, John Manzoni, permanent secretary to the cabinet office and chief executive of the civil service, who gave evidence alongside Harrison, said there was now a business plan with milestones.

PAC members also quizzed Harrison and Manzoni about was how CCS could ensure value for money, another point raised by the NAO. In particular Ann Marie Morris, a Conservative member of the PAC, asked where the ultimate responsibility for contract management lay, and rebuked several times suggestions by Manzoni that departmental buyers and not the CCS were ultimately responsible for contract management.

“Might I suggest the [CCS] is the one setting the framework and effectively mandating how the process is done. I don’t think you can therefor sidestep any accountably and pass it right down the chain to the final person that signs off the contract,” she said.

Harrison said CSS was working to make its frameworks more “nimble” and said if end users reported multiple incidents of a supplier not performing, CSS would get involved. “But it does rely on the end user… ensuring they are monitoring the services or the goods that they are getting”, he said.

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