I’m now 14 weeks into my new role as Government Chief Commercial Officer. I thought it would be good to share some thoughts and feelings on the role, commercial capability across central government and the huge opportunities, and challenges, we face.
This is my first job in the public sector. I was expecting to see different process and governance requirements that would be a challenge to adjust to. What has actually been really striking is the sheer scale at which the public sector operates; discussing contracts worth hundred of millions is commonplace, and the diversity of issues is extraordinary.
What is also clear is that there are real opportunities to make huge savings for taxpayers, and improvements in service levels, through better-designed contract negotiation and ongoing management.
I’m unapologetic in stating my goal as making the Government Commercial Function the best commercial function in the UK.
When considering commercial outcomes, being ‘best’ is all about maximising value on goods and services bought by government. But how do we achieve this? What change in behaviours do we need?
In part, we need to make sure we have the right bench strength of commercial specialists - ideally developed internally, which means we should make better use of the learning and development offerings that already exist across government. Of course, where we need to, we must also recruit from outside. Which means offering competitive pay and rewards and making it clearer what an exciting place to work this is. More on that in a moment.
With the right people, are they in the right structure? You may be aware that departments are engaged in a ‘blueprint’ exercise to determine the right structure for their commercial functions, based on what they see as their future workload. That work should be completed by late summer.
With the right people in the right structure, are we working in the best way? Here there is some really good news. Although I haven't been to every commercial site around the country yet, it’s obvious we have many more pockets of good practice than anyone realises. While I will be looking to share examples of private sector best practice where relevant, I have seen some inventive and practical processes and programmes that currently are limited to single departments - if these could be adopted, where relevant, across government, we have the opportunity to raise capability very quickly.
Updating our standards
Sharing common best practice is something I’m really keen to drive forward - we’re organising visits to high-performing private sector commercial organisations to aid this initiative, and we will be updating the cross-government commercial standards, published for the first time in February.
These standards incorporate advice and suggestions from civil servants at all levels. They describe how we should work throughout the commercial life-cycle, from the inception of projects to the termination of contracts and the search for new suppliers. By adopting them and benchmarking ourselves against them we can ensure best practice is shared and adopted right across government.
One item taking a lot of focus to complete is the GCO - the Government Commercial Organisation.
The GCO is a subset of the people in the overall Commercial Function and will bring together all staff at Grade 6 and above from across the Civil Service. They will be paid centrally, which will also help build a sense of functional identity, but they will still work and be based in their departments. This is no easy feat, but it is crucial to building the stature of the commercial profession within the Civil Service, and in turn the capability of the people who staff the function. It’s important to underline that the function works in addition to the departments, it‘s not an alternative.
Clearly, there is a lot going on in the commercial world, and as I get further into my role, I expect these priorities to shift and develop. The deep reform we are undergoing won’t be easy, but it will create real benefits for the taxpayer. Commercial is an integral part of government and, done right, it represents a huge opportunity for a more efficient and effective Civil Service.
I look forward to working with you all to advance this agenda. If you have any questions on this please get in touch with me at CCO@cabinetofffice.gov.uk.