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‘Fraught’ relationships hindering savings



Think tank Reform quotes concerns about Crown Commercial Service - and its relationship with the Government Digital Service

Digital innovation in public procurement could yet fail to fulfil its potential thanks partly to “a somewhat fraught” relationship between the two Cabinet Office bodies leading the effort.

That is one warning in a substantive think tank report which attempts to re-inject some political momentum into the subject of procurement efficiency. This seems to have declined since the departure of Francis Maude from his ministerial position in Cabinet Office after the general election.

A single line from Cloud-9 by Reform is sure to be widely quoted: “The somewhat fraught relationship between [the Crown Commercial Service] and the Government Digital Service - who developed the G-Cloud - will prevent any acceleration of reform.”

This plays well to a new scepticism about the Government Digital Service, especially since the Public Accounts Committee’s revelations about culture clashes in the development of the digital rural payments system.

Vanity project

Reform also has a pop at the GDS’s sister body, saying departments and suppliers are sceptical about the newly created Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and its ability to manage relationships both in and outside government.

It adds: “Labelled a ‘vanity project’… CCS has registered a negative ‘net promoter score’ in both the years it has been running, meaning central government departments on average would not recommend CCS’s services to other departments.

Issues are also identified at the Cabinet Office level. One interviewee suggested it struggled to secure internal buy-in from other departments during the course of complex, multi-agency negotiations. The resultant internal disputes created a difficult climate for the incoming supplier.

But, even if fair, this is neither new nor surprising. Ever since the days of the government’s Central IT Unit back in the 1990s, managers and frontline staff in big public facing agencies have tended to grit their teeth at the arrival of the efficiency wonk, whether equipped with a line of ballpoint pens or a sticker-adorned MacBook Air.


What may be more significant is that, six years after the Maude revolution (and 10 years since those following Sir Peter Gershon's Efficiency Review), central government is still struggling with the skills and willpower to harness the potential benefits of digitisation when it comes to procurement.

One ray of hope is in G-Cloud. “As it stands, GDS and CCS are developing the digital agenda at very different speeds," Reform says. "The result is that responsibilities have been blurred, tension has been created and growth has thus far happened in one specific section: cloud-based IT goods and services.”

But it finds plenty of case studies of procurements that have gone awry - and contrasts the efficiency savings with those achieved by exemplars South Korea and Estonia.

Single portal

Among the report's recommendations are:

  • The new Crown Marketplace should be a single portal for the e-procurement of goods and services, accompanied by an integrated payment function. The framework to purchase commodities must be recompeted regularly to ensure maximum competition.
  • The Government should scale up pre-market engagement by moving more supplier engagement online.
  • More performance-related pay should be introduced for procurement officials, to create “a healthier attitude towards risk “.
  • Commitments to transparency should be enforced, with the Crown Marketplace publishing information on forthcoming procurements and existing departmental procurement spend, broken down by agency, product category and supplier.

But perhaps what is needed most of all is leadership, with the charisma, energy and clout to make the procurement efficiency portfolio the most glamorous in Whitehall.

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