Spend controls and patchy engagement hampering efforts to boost civil service commercial skills, according to Whitehall chief

Ongoing ‘competing priorities’ still get in the way of long-term work to boost buying savvy, says Alex Chisholm

Credit: Pxhere

Efforts to improve civil servants’ commercial and contract-management skills are being hampered by spending constraints and a lack of engagement from some organisations, the Cabinet Office’s permanent secretary has said.

The government launched a major push to boost the civil service’s commercial acumen in 2015, after a series of reviews identified a need to bolster the “capability, capacity and confidence” of commercial specialists.

But, since then, there has been continued scrutiny and criticism over issues such as the huge sums of money spent on consultancy to support Brexit preparations as well as a number of delayed and over-budget outsourcing projects, including the Home Office’s multi-billion-pound Emergency Services Network programme.

The most recent iteration of effort to tackle government’s procurement challenges – the Commercial Capability Expansion Programme programme – is being reviewed because it is unlikely to be completed by its March 2023 deadline.

The programme aims to train and assess three groups: grade-7 commercial leads in central government departments; contract managers in those departments; and commercial specialists in wider government bodies.

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The programme was initially scheduled to finish this March, but the deadline was pushed back by 12 months because of the Covid pandemic.

Work on training the grade 7s was completed in December 2019, at which point “it was recognised that the challenge ahead was to achieve the same level of success with the wider government bodies and the rollout of the contract management training”, said Cabinet Office head Alex Chisholm – who also serves as chief operating officer of the civil service.

The work to train up these two groups is “ongoing”, but “engagement and competing priorities across some [organisations] has limited the desired pace to meet the programme objectives fully,” according to Chisholm’s accounting officer assessment of the CCEP.

A partnerships team is working with departments to “fully understand and overcome barriers to engagement”, he said.

Meanwhile, “wider Cabinet Office recruitment and spending controls” –  which include governance processes for digital, data and technology investments – are also making it more difficult to deliver the programme, he added.

It is therefore being reviewed internally “to reassure alignment between goals and resources”.

Under the Treasury’s Managing Public Money rules, major projects must be assessed against four criteria: regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility. While the Commercial Capability Expansion Programme passes three of the four tests, it has only “partially met” the feasibility standard, Chisholm concluded.

He said the CCEP had initially had “significant success in building capability across the senior commercial function”. His team had found “sufficient evidence” to suggest the rest could be delivered if the programme dedicated “sufficient attention to create momentum with organisations and had the capacity to meet organisational needs”.

Officials will update the Civil Service Board on the programme’s progress and propose next steps in November, Chisholm said.

In 2014 and 2015, the Cabinet Office and Treasury carried out commercial capability reviews of the 10 departments with the largest influence on government spending.

The reviews concluded “we needed to do much more to improve the capability, capacity and confidence of commercial specialists across government”, Chisholm wrote in his accounting-officer assessment.

The resulting Commercial Capability Programme ran for three years from 2015 to 2018 under the Government Major Projects Portfolio, and promised to “recruit, retain, develop and grow our own best commercial talent, helping to drive commercial common sense”.

It also led to the launch of the Government Commercial Organisation – a cross-government network that buys and supports the procurement of goods and services, and the civil service’s central employer for senior commercial specialists.

In 2017, the Civil Service Board endorsed proposals to expand the CCP “to further improve commercial capability deeper into the civil service and across the wider public sector”.

As at 31 March, 5,598 individuals had been assessed through the Commercial Capability Expansion Programme, Chisholm said. There were 1,134 accredited commercial professionals within the GCO as of that date.


Sam Trendall

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