What changes can be made to ensure public sector spending and project management is more efficient?

The government spends in excess of £250 billion annually and depends upon the private sector to help it deliver its programmes. The system wastes much in time, with cost overruns a frequent occurrence on major projects. 

The dependency on consultants has not happened overnight. Recent recessions, reporting changes, reductions in headcount, Y2K and before that the constraints of Public Contracts Regulations in the ‘90s have all played their part in the civil service’s increasing reliance on external resources for tasks that arguably should be done in-house.

A lack of commercial awareness

A number of attempts have been made to counter this, such as recruitment campaigns, increases in public sector wages to tempt people from the private sector, the establishment of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and the Government Commercial Function (GCF). With the best of efforts, there is still a journey to be had for the civil service to act truly commercially.

There are approximately 30,000 civil servants managing commercial programmes. The majority of these dedicated people, however, are practitioners in their field, yet ill equipped with the necessary experience to deal directly in technically challenging and commercially confrontational environments to extract the best value from their supply chain. GCF has an advancing commercial assessment programme and offers some training, but 3-5 days of training will not prepare these capable civil servants to extract the contractual best from top tier suppliers.

One solution

If smaller, private sector consultancies were used more effectively to provide this capability, charged with a clear remit to support the government to manage Tier 1 suppliers in contract delivery, this would help achieve a more successful outcome. These can meet the real needs of the situation, collectively with the civil service, to drive every pound of value from large scale service providers throughout the commercial lifecycle – from concept, to procurement and, most importantly, throughout contract management to exit.

I know this from experience. In nearly 30 years in the commercial sector working as a consultant, interim manager and a senior civil servant, I found the professional services delivery method frustrating and thought the value structure of both consultancies and agencies could be better. When I was part of the traditional consultancy/ interim model, I would enter into various contracts as an individual, land and complete the job, but feel rather commoditised.

I saw first-hand how little value the agency model often added, with limited support or engagement throughout the contract duration. The consultancy model has a high dependency on partners winning the work, then juniors completing it. This, combined with the drive to increase revenue directly contradicted a claimed client-centric approach and any form of civic responsibility.

That is why I set up Augmentas Group. This is a respectfully disruptive service business, challenging the established practices in all of its sectors. Its approach is to enhance the engagement model from both sides of the consultancy model – the customer and the deliverer. It challenges existing frameworks and encourages all providers in this field to re-focus on the people and on delivery.

It recognises that there is a natural conflict between financial success in the private sector and the social obligations of the public sector, where social value is more important than making money. It understands that these dynamics need to change and that with the debt crisis that the Government will face, value must be driven from every UK-tax-derived-pound. We see the following key aspects as crucial to achieve this:

1.     Increased commercial maturity of the public sector, acting robustly, streamlining governance while increasing personal accountability.

2.     The reduction or better management of large volume, contractor-based delivery while increasing civil service involvement and skills.

3.     All third-party providers being accountable to the public sector in their charging structure, transparency in cost, performance, margins and ‘doing the right thing’.

The public sector must operate more like the private sector, understanding that accountability in delivery is critical to organisational success. That is my take after extensive experience working within this field, but I would love to know what you think – just let me know in the comments below. 

About Glenn St John-Colgan, FIoD MCIPS

Glenn is the managing partner of Augmentas Group, a specialist in the field of commercial, contract and project management. Augmentas Group has acted as an extension of civil service teams to help control large consultancy projects for DEFRA, BEIS, Cabinet Office, Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office, Ministry of Justice, Office of National Statistics, and the Houses of Parliament. The team’s decades of experience within government procurement and contract management helps drive better supplier performance, supplier social value and accountability, boost efficiency and reintroduce value for money, while improving the retained skillset within the civil service. This last aspect was recognised by being finalists in both CCS Procurex Go! Awards and CIPS Excellence Awards, 2020.