Select Committee on Public Accounts Twenty-First Report

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



  140. A database, accessible to all departments, surely?
  (Mr Gershon) Yes, but we have to collect relevant information.

  141. Yes. You set the framework up, you fill the forms in, you put it on the network.
  (Mr Gershon) And that is what we are looking at.

  142. And you seem to have difficulty with it. I suggest an outcome for you; why not bring in a contractor to do it for you?
  (Mr Gershon) Because it is not just a matter about the technicality of building a database, we have to agree what the detailed requirement is with the departments. The NAO Report clearly recommends the direction we should go in but we have got a lot of detailed work to do to get a proper detailed requirement. We have not got a basis for going to internal organisation or external organisation to do that for us. The requirement has not yet been properly specified. I am sure you are not encouraging me to break the rules we are trying to impose about getting clarity of requirement and business need before moving to the next stage.

  143. You are not even at that stage yet. That is the one thing you are struggling with at the moment, trying to clarify what you are requiring from providers of services?
  (Mr Gershon) We have concentrated on the sorts of things that I have explained to you like trying to get competition and enhancement of existing framework arrangements in place looking at data analysis. We have to prioritise. Much as we would like to move to the ideal situation overnight, we cannot do that. We have made some priority decisions about what we should do first and what we should do next. All I am saying is that you may disagree with the decision we have made but the decision we have made is that the database is not the highest priority thing we should tackle.

  144. There is no point in setting up the database if you cannot feed the information into it. You have got to make sure you have got it set up in a manner where you can cross-relate and cross-reference. I understand your point but I do not see how you can run it without a database.
  (Mr Gershon) We will not be able to run it without a database. We have to look at other things. Firstly, we have to ensure—the point I made about getting professional procurement staff and a much higher number of professionals—that we create a framework in which we do get things like formal post-implementation views that will create the data that will go into this very powerful database in due course.

  145. I look forward to the day we start web tendering for contracts in this country but of course you are going to be back to the problem of the basic skills of your staff.
  (Mr Gershon) Can I be clear, that has started. We have been running for a number of months an electronic tendering pilot which allows us not only to issue the invitations to tender electronically, which is easy, but also for suppliers to submit their tenders back to us electronically.

  Mr Jenkins: Thank you.

  Chairman: Mr George Osborne is our last questioner.

Mr Osborne

  146. I think there may be a vote so I had better hurry up. You said to Mr Steinberg that you had a big job and most of us listening to you agreed. Perhaps we can help you. We know that the 1994 study was well implemented by some departments and poorly implemented by others. You have been talking to the various departments, and for example, the DSS and Ministry of Defence were fairly good at implementing that report. Which departments are not very good in your experience?
  (Mr Gershon) Clearly the NAO Report identifies some departments where they did not exactly get the light blue spot in all the columns.

  147. Could you remind me which ones they are?
  (Mr Gershon) There is a deep blue spot against one aspect of LCD and there is a deep blue spot against one aspect of the DTI. Deep blue means no evidence of progress. That is a matter of record; I am not shopping my departmental colleagues on this.

  148. Heaven forbid! I am glad you mentioned the DTI because the NAO Report is saying that the Department of Trade and Industry, which of course is a shop window for dealing with trade and industry, could not say precisely what £115 of its total annual expenditure on professional services of £125 million was spent on?
  (Mr Gershon) That comes back to this weakness in the management information. The DTI has recognised this and is seeing what it can do both in the short and the longer term to address this identified weakness.

  149. Are there any departments looking to the future that are being less helpful than others? Perhaps we can help chivvy them along.
  (Mr Gershon) Less helpful?

  150. You have come up with a series of proposals for the handling of procurement; are there any particular departments which are being less helpful in responding to your requests?
  (Mr Gershon) No.

  151. They are all pursuing it with equal vigour?
  (Mr Gershon) There is tremendous scope for government to do better. We are not experiencing resistance to trying to do better. What we are trying is to do this in a helpful way. In my experience, if you want to bring about real change you have to work in a collaborative and helpful way with departments to bring about the desired change. We will not bring it about without the tools in place—measurement tools, better framework agreements and working with departments to get better involvement of professional procurement staff. We will not achieve the desired objective by sitting in the centre and lobbing directives over the fence to departments because this is partly about cultural and behavioural change.

  152. You said in response to one of my colleagues that some departments are going to increase the seniority of procuring officers.
  (Mr Gershon) Yes.

  153. Which departments are not?
  (Mr Gershon) Some departments have determined that the seniority is appropriate to their current procurement needs.

  154. Could you tell the Committee which departments have not increased the seniority, for whatever reason, of procuring officers?
  (Mr Gershon) As an example, the Department for International Development.

  155. Any other examples?
  (Mr Gershon) There are none that I can recollect.

  156. So it is just the Department for International Development?
  (Mr Gershon) There may be others. I have used that as an example where I can answer your question with confidence. You should not read into that that the current level is inappropriate for the procurement needs of that department.

  157. The point I am getting at is that in 1994 when your predecessor in the Cabinet Office did this huge study, a couple of departments did respond positively. No doubt at the time there was a great flourish about how they were going to improve everything and £65 million was going to be saved and so on. Here we are seven years later and it turns out that only one or two departments, according to this Report, have done anything and I am concerned that the same thing is going to happen, as other colleagues around this Committee have been concerned, and that there are some departments that are much less willing to improve things than other departments.
  (Mr Gershon) The matrix in the NAO Report identifies a whole number of attributes in the six organisations it looked at where it said there was either evidence that something was done well or there was evidence that the department was already taking steps to improve this area.

  158. But there are some departments that have not.
  (Mr Gershon) Let us be very careful. In the Lord Chancellor's Department and the DTI those dark blue spots were against one specific attribute in the matrix that the NAO published. It was not a comment about all the attributes that the NAO was looking at. The DTI comment was specifically about good management information not being available and the LCD comment was specifically about whether it has effective external collaboration with the providers of professional services. In the other areas those two departments were rated by the NAO as having taken steps to improve.

  159. Time is running out. If I could turn your attention to something else you said. You said—and I paraphrase you—that never in your living memory or possibly in recorded history had there been a meeting across departmental civil servants to discuss procurement—
  (Mr Gershon) No, I said permanent secretaries.

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