Cram said a centralised contracting authority could have prevented the failure of outsourced probation services ©Crown Copyright
Cram said a centralised contracting authority could have prevented the failure of outsourced probation services ©Crown Copyright

CCS-style body needed for government outsourcing

One of the architects of the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) has called for the creation of a centralised contracting authority to handle major government outsourcing projects.

Colin Cram, who proposed the concept of a centralised government procurement body in 2010, said there should be a group of “top commercial people” able to operate across government departments on all major or complex contracts including outsourcing and PFI schemes.

He added if such an organisation had existed the outsourcing of probation services in England and Wales might not have failed.

The government announced today it was ending the contracts to run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) two years earlier after admitting they had “faced significant challenges” and “unforeseen changes” in the types of offenders they needed to work with.

Speaking to SM, Cram said the de-centralised way CRCs were contracted meant the process was “bound to go wrong”.

He said there were two possible reasons why the outsourcing had failed: firstly, the move was not the right way to provide the services, in which case an independent contracting authority would have been able to “blow the whistle”. Alternatively the contracts may have failed because the right expertise was not applied to the contracting process. “My guess is the latter,” he said.

“Had the expertise been available in a central organisation with a single approach to the probation service, taking account of local variations, then that outsourcing might well have worked. And people suffer when these things fall apart.”

Cram also said the Government Commercial Organisation (GCO) was “caught napping” during the Carillion crisis and it either failed to give advice to ministers or its advice was ignored. “What you’ve got now is a lot of very, very highly paid people in procurement and ministers need to listen to them,” he said.

Cram said there was already enough talent available to create a centralised contracting authority and that some of the structures already existed. For example all the heads of procurement for departments already have reporting lines to the government chief commercial officer. But this needed to be consolidated into a “body of absolutely brilliant expertise” and expanded across the wider public sector.

Overall Cram praised the progress of both CCS and the wider GCO. Referring to CCS’s annual report, published last week, Cram said outgoing CCS chief executive Malcolm Harrison had made “the organisation fit for the future”. “I think he’s got the organisation mostly where he wants it and I’m optimistic now that its business will grow,” said Cram.

Harrison is leaving the CCS at the end of July to become group CEO of CIPS.

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