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GO Interview – Andrew Croston

Wednesday August 18th, 2010

By Morven MacNeil, GO Features Editor

Andrew Croston, Head of Procurement at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, speaks to GO Features Editor Morven MacNeil about the recent developments taking place within the organisation and its plans for the future.

The main aims of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are to support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production; help enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life; and support a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to climate change.

Defra and its Arm’s Length Bodies will contribute £162 million to the Government’s overall £6.2 billion savings in 2010-11, amounting to 5.5 per cent of its 2010-11 budget.

GO spoke to Defra’s Head of Procurement Andrew Croston about the current changes taking place within the organisation and its plans for the future.

Could you give our readers an update on the latest developments within your division since you became Head of Procurement and Commercial at Defra?

The focus has been on reviewing our current way of working, notably around paperless procurement. We had an electronic evaluation which resulted in the development of a new eContract management application. We now have over 1000 contracts scanned on this application which we can check to make sure they are signed and that everything is in place, making it very easy to work with the legal team. It means we now have a single depository where contract information is available. We have removed about 50 cabinets from the office by going electronic with our paperwork, giving us a more open-plan environment and releasing more floor space.

We have also started using the contract opportunity portal We brought in CompeteFor as there was a need for greater transparency as well as the other benefits that the portal generates, such as increased opportunities for SMEs. CompeteFor opens up new suppliers for us and can also automatically provide a shortlist, which is another advantage.

In terms of process improvement, the team at Defra were previously CIPS-accredited. But what I looked into was really trying to drive continual improvement – CIPS accreditation in its own right does not do that; it just means you have reached a certain standard. To provide continual improvement there is a programme called CIPS Gold. Only ten to twelve organisations have attained that standard. We have now taken the CIPS Gold programme and it will take us around 12 months to complete the 16 modules and various procurement elements which you need to satisfy, including strategic intent, change management, contract management and supplier relationship management. We have a project in place and different owners for the 16 modules. The programme will benchmark us across other organisations and other sectors too.

In addition, I have made sure there is greater focus on procurement across the different networks within the Department. In terms of planning, there are around 95 organisations within the Defra network which have been used to taking a silo approach to their work. What we can do is bring their procurement plans together to see if there is any duplication of effort or any opportunities to consolidate our purchasing power. For instance, we discovered that the Environment Agency and Defra were both going to market for a Government Procurement Card (GPC); we have now merged these two requirements into one which has given us the second-largest scheme in Europe, with 13,000 GPCs. That has been a major benefit and to enable it we have brought in stronger technology by introducing an application called Huddle, a shared working environment.

We have put a lot of effort into our people and skills development, making sure that the team are more in tune with our requirements and that they understand the technology, the process and the way of working. We have been able to reduce the size of the team by about 30 per cent since last October and still deliver the same work output.

The new Coalition Government has announced that £6.2 billion in spending cuts will be made to non-frontline services for the financial year 2010-11 and a full Spending Review will be announced in October. What impact do you think this will have on procurement?

The impact on Defra will be £162 million for this year’s budget, so what we have to do is work with business to make sure that we make those savings. As for procurement’s contribution, our target within this period is £28 million, to be achieved through quick wins and value for money savings through ‘business as usual’ initiatives. Another point: collaboration has been talked about in length for several years and has been an aspiration for many, though there have always been barriers in the way. I think it is now a fundamental element in driving efficiency and will be the catalyst to make collaboration really successful.

How important do you believe innovative thinking will be in achieving efficiency savings over the coming years?

Innovation is crucial because it challenges established ways of working. The Government is currently driving the cost-cutting agenda very strongly indeed, making all the central government commercial directors think harder about their back-office services, ie moving away from ‘gold plated’ to ‘good enough’. Innovation, expanding shared services, collaboration and consolidation are also vital. I think technology is important but it is about business process development as well.

In what ways has Defra mandated the CompeteFor service across the organisation?

I successfully implemented CompeteFor at London 2012, so I knew what the service was all about and what it offered and was keen to bring it into Defra. We introduced CompeteFor into the Department just recently. Currently any contracts under £25,000 go through to the shared services team in York who process these through our own BuyFor system. I see CompeteFor complementing this by covering contracts worth £25,000 or over.

How successful has CompeteFor been in opening up the supply chain to SMEs?

In the current economic climate, the SME community should not be forgotten about. There is a lot of emphasis on cutbacks and efficiency gains but we need to make sure that SMEs are still around and that we are still giving them opportunities by opening up our supply chain. CompeteFor is the perfect tool to do that; people can see your opportunities and it gives you the chance to broaden your supply chain and find new suppliers. When it has been hard to find a supplier through the usual routes, you will often be surprised how many suppliers you can find on CompeteFor.

What are the most significant changes that you have seen in recent years with regard to procurement?

The improvement in procurement’s profile and the understanding of the role that procurement plays for organisations is continuing. Chief procurement officers, heads of procurement, commissioners and commercial directors are now better positioned within the function to play a lead role in their organisation’s future, which is very positive. Through my various roles over the last few years I have also seen the capability pool within procurement improve. The technology footprint is larger and it is good to see that a number of electronic solutions are being used in several places. I think this makes skill transfer much easier and makes the end-to-end process more efficient in terms of reporting and progress tracking.

Do you envisage any major changes in Defra over the next few years?

There will be many changes that will reshape the Department. The focus is going to be on reducing our budget while delivering the maximum level of service to the various communities that we support such as farming, food and rural areas. We are going about this in a very pragmatic way and are fully involved in the planning stages to take this forward.

Thank you for speaking to GO

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