The Crown Commercial Service: GB Interview

As the growth and reach of the government’s Crown Commercial Service continues to increase, Government Business posed some questions to Malcolm Harrison, who stepped into the position of chief executive in November 2016

Having become chief executive of the Crown Commercial Service on a full time basis towards the end of last year, what are your aims for the department in 2017?
The aim is for CCS to be the ‘go to’ provider for the procurement of common goods and services for the public sector. This was the objective when CCS was established and nothing has changed in that regard.

The organisation has however been through enormous change in the last two years, and while we can demonstrate the added value we’re bringing to government and wider public sector procurement, we could be bringing so much more value. So there is a great deal of work for CCS still to do.

We understand the pressures on budgets and the very real challenges that are faced to protect and enhance the delivery of front line services to our citizens. We need to do more to leverage our commercial expertise and national buying power, particularly for types of expenditure where there is a  consolidated supplier base, to ensure our customers achieve great value - allowing them to focus on delivering the services we all rely on. To do this, CCS needs to clearly demonstrate that we are putting in place the best value deals for common goods and services, and that we are responsive and agile to the needs of our customers.

One major part of our work this year will be the development of the Crown Marketplace. The plan is to create a one-stop shop to buy common goods and services - an ‘Amazon-like, on-line portal for the public sector’. We are currently in the test phase, and we will prove that it works before launching it for use across the public sector. This has the potential to deliver substantial value to public sector buyers.

How does your experience of working in different procurement roles (as a buyer, manager and CPO level) influence the way you plan to operate public sector procurement?
There is no substitute for real experience and having done a broad range of procurement roles is a huge benefit here. Early in my career I was involved in scheduling, ordering and operational contract management which made me understand how important these activities are, that they have to be done close to the point of use and that they are indispensable if you want to get the maximum value from any contract that has been negotiated.

What you ‘must get right’ is no different in public sector procurement from what I have experienced elsewhere. Buyers should work really closely with the users to ensure that needs are properly identified and specified. It is critical to understand the supply base, including the new entrants, challengers and suppliers who could be the winners of tomorrow. One must be convinced that a supplier can deliver the right quality, on time, every time and this must take account of very local service needs as well as fluctuations in demand. The process of selection has to be fair, transparent and competitive in order to give all potential suppliers a chance and to select the range of suppliers that meets our needs and delivers the greatest value for money.

I have been fortunate to have held some broader business management roles and this experience will have as much influence on how I aim to make CCS a truly best-in-class organisation. Nobody wants buyers that focus on the process to the detriment of driving real commercial value, nor buyers that take too long to deliver what the user is waiting for, or are working with agreements that are no longer ‘fit for purpose’ simply because the market has advanced and what was a great deal two years ago is not the most relevant today. The best procurement organisations get this right for their users and have a focus that is ‘commercial whilst being compliant’. That is what I want people to be saying about CCS, because that is what we are doing as we support our customers to deliver the best value for the taxpayer.

How is the fast-developing transformation of digital services changing the way the CCS works?
Digital transformation affects both how our customers want to use technology, and how we use it ourselves. Internally within CCS we’ve replaced our traditional local server-based office applications with more efficient and cost effective cloud-based alternatives. Laptops used to take up to 15 minutes to boot up, now it’s more like 15 seconds. We’ve also moved our customer support system to a cloud-based alternative. No longer hosting local servers saves the taxpayer money.

We need to ensure that our customers can benefit from the opportunities presented by digital technology. We have a dedicated procurement team with deep category expertise, led by Niall Quinn, looking specifically at ensuring we provide the very best technology procurement solutions. Our G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes frameworks for instance allow customers to access a diverse network of digital service suppliers, including many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), who play an important role in supplying new and innovative technology to the public sector.

What progress will you look to see in terms of interaction between the CCS and SMEs?
Working with SMEs and helping central government meet its SME spend target is at the heart of our business plan. Our focus is on making our deals as commercially competitive as possible and that includes ensuring that, where the market allows, SMEs have the chance to bid and win business.

We’ve already seen a good increase in our engagement and interaction with SMEs in the last 12-18 months. Our level of pre-market engagement has ramped up substantially and we are beginning to see positive outcomes with more SMEs winning places on our deals than ever before. The next step is for us to work with them to turn that initial success of getting on a framework into winning actual business from that deal, enabling them to grow.

This isn’t about handouts and unfair advantages though, it is about us providing the right information and support to all suppliers, especially SMEs and new entrants, on a regular basis. This will result in them competing on an even keel with larger, more established companies.

What impact will the power distribution (devolution) to local authorities have on the CCS?
CCS has experience of working with devolved administrations, transacting over £950 million per annum on behalf of the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh administrations.

Through listening and engaging with customers and purchasing bodies, this has helped CCS identify where those core common goods and services can be bought on a collaborative basis on national and / or regional basis to allow focus on front-line delivery.

English devolution, and the possible degrees in difference in the deals that might be done means that the commercial support that they shall require would be quite different. This will engender even greater collaboration between local, regional and national procurement bodies as we need to be joined-up to get the best value from our suppliers - either acting as one with national suppliers or to promote the best local suppliers to see them deliver greater value to the taxpayer, and to see these businesses grow as a consequence.

Malcolm Harrison was appointed as chief executive of the Crown Commercial Service on 1 November 2016, having been operating as interim chief executive since May 2016.

Malcolm is responsible for the strategic leadership and management of CCS. He has overall responsibility for ensuring CCS meets the objectives set out in the annual business plan, and is also leading the Operational Review of CCS, which is aimed at ensuring CCS will have a future operating model which is effective and efficient, with a strong commercial focus on providing value for money and excellent public services.

Malcolm has substantial procurement expertise and significant board-level experience within the private sector, and a strong track record of leading complex and diverse organisations.

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