The UK public sector has sometimes had a bad press for its perceived failings in delivering major projects, managing contracts and procuring goods and services, and for the waste and inefficiency these can cause. Indeed, whole books have been written about the subject, with commentators doubting that the Civil Service can ever be as good at commercial negotiation and management as we are in more traditional roles, such as providing policy advice.
Of course, our successes never get quite the same publicity.
To take just three examples:
- the renegotiation of a £6 billion aircraft carrier contract, reducing the MoD’s risk exposure to a 50:50 share with the supplier(s), and encouraging industry to take a firmer grip of the programme and its costs
- Crown Commercial Service realising cumulative cash savings of around £70 million by reshaping arrangements for the remaining years of a longstanding departmental IT contract, parts of which we believed were too expensive and no longer fit for purpose
- expected savings of up to £250 million from £1.2 billion public funding committed to suppliers in the first phase of the programme making superfast broadband available to 95% of the UK – the result of tight contract management and value-for-money control by Broadband Delivery UK (led by a new CEO from the private sector), now recognised as best practice across government
But some of the criticism has been justified. That is why I am fully behind initiatives to make the Civil Service more capable in its commercial dealings, as spelt out in the Capabilities Plan and its 2014 refresh. In fact, I have made this one of my top three priorities as Head of the Civil Service and it will remain so. I want to see us operating on the same level as the best-performing FTSE 100 companies – ensuring that we get the best value for money for the taxpayer but also taking a broader view, unique to the public sector, of ensuring the social value of effectively delivered projects and services.
A key element in our strategy is to build on the commercial expertise we already have within the Civil Service through learning and development, and to bring in more private sector experience.
Some of that expertise is on display in Civil Service Learning’s first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), on contract management, which you may have seen me tweet about recently.
MOOCs are a relatively new concept in online learning, offering learners a new level of flexibility and interactivity and a global frame of reference. You can dip into them whenever you want over, in this case, a three-week period, and from wherever you are. You can watch and comment on videos, take part in quizzes, ask questions, discuss issues with respected experts and fellow course members all over the world, and learn from each others’ experiences.
Contributions to the contract management MOOC by UK civil servants have drawn positive comments from users internationally and generated compelling conversations. A topic of discussion in course forums has been how the public and private sectors can learn from each other and ‘partner’ to deliver success that meets the twin imperatives of social and financial value. In one course video, Darren Sivapalan, Senior Commercial Manager, Crown Commercial Service, talks about managing relationships with government’s strategic suppliers and the importance of understanding what suppliers can and can’t do.
Commercial nous is something we need at all levels of the Civil Service, whether we are ordering stationery or commissioning major infrastructure projects. The principles of supplier engagement are the same, whatever the size of the contract you’re managing. So, don’t think this MOOC is only for those involved in large-scale contracts.
The course is really easy to sign up for, completely free and, although it started on 27 April, it is still worth signing up – the online content and networking forums are available to you after the course has finished. Over 16,000 people from around the world have already registered. They include – I’m pleased to say – many UK civil servants, who make up about 20% of the total.
As a Civil Service, we are getting better at being commercial. Ultimately, this means getting full value for the taxpayers’ money we spend – and, if anything, the need for us to keep improving is going to become even more acute. This applies to us all, not the commercial profession alone.
From senior leaders down, we need to look at our jobs through a commercial lens, see what we need to do to to ensure that we choose the best, most cost-effective and innovative solutions, goods and services from the widest possible marketplace, and manage contracts and suppliers so we get what we are paying for. And when we spot gaps in capability, it is all our jobs to ensure we use the learning options that are available to fill them.
Follow Sir Jeremy on Twitter: @HeadUKCivServ