We highlighted the publication of the Crown Commercial Services Management Consultancy tender (“MCF2”) recently here. CCS is setting up four “lots” to cover a range of consulting requirements, and there have been a few negative comments around the design of the process; for instance, the lack of real price competition in the tender design. So we did a bit of digging around, talked to a couple of people we know who understand CCS pretty well, did some thinking … and have some potential explanations in terms of the logic behind the procurement.
The first point is that CCS has to meet the needs of the central departments and related bodies that it serves, particularly since those users are now mandated to use CCS. In the consulting space, for sectors such as high-powered strategic advice, that means satisfying the needs of top civil servants and indeed Ministers. So while we might feel that smaller, less expensive firms could do much of this work – but when we’re talking mission-critical consulting support in highly sensitive areas (Brexit, for example), it is probably inevitable that the users will at the very least expect to see the big firms on the list as potential providers.
At the same time, CCS is trying to meet the government’s policy goals around smaller firms (SMEs). So it wants to have also some mechanism that enables small firms to get onto the framework and have a chance of winning work. That also means the bidding process can’t be too onerous, otherwise SMEs just won’t bother.
Hence the design of these lots. Two are unlimited in number, modelled really on G-Cloud in that suppliers meet a qualification threshold but aren’t really assessed against each other. Then lots 3 and 4 ask for experience of major programmes and assignments, are somewhat limited in membership (although up to 30 is still a pretty large number of providers for a lot) and have more of a real selection-type assessment, which is clearly designed to favour the larger firms.
So CCS achieves its aim of having a route to engage the “big boys” for those who want them; but also offers the chance of perhaps hundreds of smaller firms having at least a presence on the framework. (Whether they win any work is another question, probably for another day).
Then there is this question of the lack of price competition. Well, we all know that obtaining the best value from multiple supplier frameworks requires vital work to take place at the call-off stage i.e. when the actual choice of provider is made. So our take on it is that CCS has recognised this, and is not trying to get market-leading pricing at this first stage.
Rather, the real value will be established (we all hope) by and through the second stage selection – where users can also perhaps define clear outputs and follow all the other best practice principles for professional services engagement (see “Buying Professional Services”, Czerniawska and Smith!)
There are also other constraints on CCS and indeed any public buyer when it comes down to the process. The “quality” questions in the tender need to be forward looking, so the reliance on past experience that most private sector buyers might use in selecting consultants is not easy to achieve here. So the “quality” assessment for the two unlimited lots here is pretty limited – again, this suggests that the second stage of the procurement process and the service filter is where the real work needs to be done.
I am also told that CCS engaged with the market throughout the planning process, and no-one came up with anything better than what we see in this tender. (I do know from experience that suppliers will sometimes moan about process, but getting real, workable ideas from them – “well you come up with something better” - is not always easy!)
So, perhaps this explains to some degree the design of the competition – and we can see the logic. However, as we said, this puts a lot of focus on that second stage, and we understand CCS is planning to put major effort into getting this right. There will also need to be effective supplier performance management, so that will be another priority for the organisation.
But the team shouldn’t under-estimate the size of the education task; in our experience, there just isn’t a lot of expertise out there in terms of consultancy buying. The risks are that the framework is used improperly, or users just choose their “favourite” supplier, just accept headline pricing, and work on time and materials when assignments should be output based.
So the most important point is that CCS will need to engage closely with buyers and budget holders in central government – and also potential framework users in the wider public sector – to encourage best practice at the call-off stage. That must mean considering issues including demand management, how to define clear specifications, how to select the best firm, using the right commercial models (including performance related fees where appropriate), the importance of outcomes and outputs, and so on. Achieving understanding amongst the user base of these issues will ultimately determine whether “MCF2” delivers value for the taxpayer – so we wish CCS luck and success in that
Sourced from Spend Matters Network written by Peter Smith