Insight Executive Group are delighted to be recruiting for an exciting position as the Divisional Director of Harrow and Brent Council’s Procurement and Commercial Shared Service division. This week I caught up with Terry Brewer, the current Divisional Director. We talked government austerity drives, juggling two boroughs, and he gave me a glimpse into of a week in the life of a director in this highly rewarding role…
Thanks for joining me, Terry. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up in the role of Divisional Director?
I was working with the fire service, overseeing national procurement projects, when my organisation closed under the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ (no irony there!). I moved to my first role in a London borough, as Camden’s Chief Procurement Officer.
At the time, Camden had engaged a big four consultancy firm, to make recommendations as they transformed their service. I came on-board as the new service started. It had a ‘hub and spoke’ structure, with a small central strategic team, with ‘hubs’ of procurement teams embedded in different Departments.
Camden was a very multi-faceted borough. The role was extremely interesting and I had no plans to leave, until I was approached about the post at Harrow.
And what was it that attracted you to the position?
I was quite captivated by the enthusiasm of the Chief Executive for procurement. That kind of energy and zeal for procurement is relatively rare. There was also the desire for the borough to progress commercialisation as an agenda.
“I can’t resist the challenge of transforming procurement teams into high performers, and at Harrow there is the innate desire to achieve that level of performance. That’s an extremely attractive opportunity.”
What’s the most enjoyable aspect of the role?
Being in a shared service gives you a great feeling of collaboration. You’re part of a growing entity, rather than being limited by something that is reducing. There’s always the desire for further growth at Harrow, and that’s very enjoyable. I genuinely believe this approach represents the future of procurement (and many areas of government), as a response to the pressures we face. It’s been really great to be part of the vanguard, making it happen in local government.
Working across two boroughs (Harrow and Brent) has also been very interesting. They have their similarities, but also real differences, and being able to directly compare differing approaches to the same issues is fascinating.
“The key benefit is that you’re working with some exceptionally talented and dedicated people across a wide range of areas and expertise.”
Can you walk us through a week in the life of the Divisional Director at Harrow and Brent Councils?
Sure. There are a lot of components to the working week. Let’s take the last week in March as an example…
I kicked the week off meeting my manager who oversees the HR shared service agreement between Harrow and Buckinghamshire CC. We discussed IR35 issues (which have overrun our lives lately), as well as matters concerning the implementation of our new managed vendor agency contract.
After that I headed into London, to make a presentation at a workshop to debate commercialisation in local government, which had been organised by a consultancy. Several councils attended the event. I outlined Harrow’s approach and our journey so far. This led to a great discussion on ‘lessons learned’, and I was able to provide a lot of insight into elements that had worked well for us, and aspects that weren’t so successful.
In the afternoon I was back in Harrow for our Resources and Commercial Directorate Quarterly Improvement Board, which includes members and the CEO. We outlined our status regarding key commercial and procurement initiatives we are currently leading.
The day ended with an evening meeting called Harrow Connects. We invited our top fifteen Harrow contractors to meet with representatives from the voluntary sector, to assess how our contractors could assist the VSC with problems they are experiencing, given that the level of grants that Harrow can afford to provide has reduced. We run it as a ‘speed networking’ event, and there’s a lot of great energy in the room. It was very successful.
Tuesday began with an early morning meeting with the Local Government Association in London. We’ve undertaken some procurement work for the LGA in the past, and they called us back to run a catering tender. It required an interesting mixture of a basic service, with some ‘silver service’ requirements, on a risk/reward basis.
After the LGA meeting I headed over to Brent. The Brent Leader asked me meet with a local contractor, who had questioned why they were unable to get work in Brent. It resulted in a very useful discussion, and my promise to investigate where the Council had need of their services.
This was followed by the Commissioning and Procurement Board in Brent. There was a lot on the agenda, including a review of the council’s procurement savings pipeline, several Gateway reports, and a discussion on how we’re progressing with the implementation of our local supplier portal. The Portal will be used to advertise all requirements below £25K, and enable us to ‘postcode’ them to exclusively local businesses.
The morning was spent in Harrow at a corporate leadership group meeting, including all the principal officers in the Borough. We discussed key issues concerning the new Civic centre, as well as possible layouts. The council is moving to Wealdstone, and the new centre is providing an opportunity to transform the way we work. We were also introduced to the new Employee Relations manager, Kathleen, from Buckinghamshire CC, with whom Harrow has a shared arrangement to provide our HR services.
The afternoon began with a Directorate Management Team meeting led by Tom Whiting, Corporate Director Commercial[c] and Resources. We went over the Resources budget, discussed the key projects list for 2017/18, and debriefed on items discussed at the Corporate Management Team meeting.
That was followed by a portfolio holder meeting, in which we discussed some of our Gateway procurement reports, and ran through whether the proposed way forward will achieve Council objectives.
Thursday was a packed day, beginning with a meeting of the West London Alliance Procurement Board, early in the morning. The procurement leads for boroughs in North West London meet quarterly to discuss potential areas of collaboration. I provided a presentation on the work we’ve done in Harrow and Brent to embed Social Value in our procurement processes. That was followed by a discussion on collaboration and procurement opportunities, during which we agreed to review contract pipelines across the WLA boroughs.
After that I headed over to Euston to meet a representative from NHS England, and discuss their approach to Social Value. I lead a national task force on Social Value, and we have representatives across the public sector, but not currently in the health department. I was investigating if there is someone in that sector who might join us, so we can all share best practice.
The afternoon saw a meeting on Brent’s Sports and Leisure Centre PFI scheme at Willesden. The leisure operator proposed a change to the consortia company structure, which could generate savings for the Council. We discussed whether the income share with Brent is sufficient, and how to further the necessary contract changes.
The day ended with a one-to-one between myself and one of my managers in Brent. An audit report had been prepared on procurement systems and processes in one of the Service areas, and we ran through it to ensure we agreed with the recommendations, and map out an action plan.
I got in very early on Friday to catch up on my emails (they are a seemingly endless maelstrom), after which I held a catch up meeting with Finance Business Partner, to ensure Procurement has raised all the necessary invoices to ensure we recover costs incurred through work undertaken for other organisations. We also ran through budget issues for next financial year.
I rounded out the week with a phone call with the CEO of London Grid for Learning, for whom we undertake commercial and procurement work. A number of their contracts needed renewing, and we worked through list to outline where we are up to with renewals and savings.
Sounds like you’re juggling a lot of very interesting elements! What’s the most rewarding aspect of the role?
There are a lot of interesting aspects to the job. Being involved in the development of a commercialisation programme with Harrow has been very interesting.
“I’ve always viewed commercialisation as a natural extension of the procurement role. I believe it’s something procurement staff throughout local government should be engaged in.”
It is very gratifying to pour energy into considering how income might be generated, rather than focusing exclusively on how costs might be cut.
The other aspect of the position I have found satisfying has been taking a lead on the development of Social Value in both councils. We’ve found that we’re getting very substantial social value offerings from tenderers that will put benefits straight back into local communities; it’s amazing to see procurement facilitate that kind of community benefit. As a result of the work I’ve been doing on Social Value I’ve been chairing a national task force, to improve take up and approach across the public sector.
There’s always a flipside though, right? What’s the most challenging aspect of the job?
Running a shared service is extremely exciting and very interesting, but it also has its challenges. One of the most challenging aspects has been being devoting enough time to each organisation in the shared service. Procurement is a profession that necessitates working closely with Service areas, and maintaining excellent relationships is key to achieving that. Having more limited time across a number of organisations makes it more difficult to maintain those relationships, particularly with Members and principal officers.
The other main challenge is the level of technology required; I currently have a laptop, an iPad, an iPhone, and a Blackberry, plus two diaries, all to ensure I can work across both boroughs as flexibly as possible! As shared services continues to grow, the ICT side of things will need to be capable of addressing the challenges involved in working across organisational boundaries. (And don’t talk to me about getting the same FoI request in two different boroughs, believe me, that’s no fun at all!)
With the government’s continued austerity drive, how do you see procurement reshaping across local government?
Many areas across local government are shrinking at the moment due to budget cuts. In Harrow, because of the direction of travel we have taken with our shared service work, the budget trajectory for procurement is in such a way that, by the start of the 2018/19 financial year, we’ll have taken out £500K of savings (over 3 years). That’s helped to maintain front line services. If we hadn’t entered into a shared service, the staffing numbers we have left would only have been capable of accommodating a compliance type role; strategic work would have been impossible.
I’ve come across a number of councils that have cut back on their procurement teams, to the point they’re unable to contribute anything strategic to the work of that council. I’ve particularly noticed this at a regional level. I chair the London Heads of Procurement Network, and the Heads of Procurement are finding it increasingly difficult to attend the meetings due to time constraints. None of us have the time to do pan-London work anymore, which we were doing only a few years ago.
Another issue is that there is a real paucity of good commercially-focussed procurement staff. Three Heads of Procurement (including myself) now each oversee the procurement of two boroughs. I believe this approach will increasingly be the norm across local government, in order to meet the budget cuts and commercial staffing capability gap we’re all facing.
And finally, any advice to people looking to take their career from middle management up to director level?
The problem with many procurement officers and teams in councils is that they’re seen to be a purely back office function, rather than a strategic resource that can deliver real change. It is essential to get in front of Members and principal officers, and demonstrate to them the benefits of procurement.
There are several routes by which this might be done; one approach is to write a Procurement Strategy for the Council and take that to Cabinet for approval. Another is to be very proactive on a specific area, such as Social Value or Commercialisation, so you can establish the significant ‘added value’ of procurement work.
Members particularly like social value, as there is a genuine pay back into local communities from procurement activity. The key (in my experience) is to devise strategies that mean you are repeatedly getting in front Members and principal officers.
Great advice, Terry, thanks so much for your time. What’s next for you?
No problem at all, I’m happy to provide a peek behind the curtain[s]. What’s next for me? Well, I officially retire in June, but I don’t plan to sit around watching Countdown, or trimming the verge! I’m already in discussions about doing some consultancy work, and a couple of organisations are talking to me about being a non-executive director for them. So while I will miss my current role, I have some very exciting things to look forward to.
Like the sound of Terry’s job? Seeing yourself in the role?
We’re recruiting for the perfect candidate to step into Terry’s illustrious (and shiny) shoes, you can find our further details and apply by visiting our recruitment microsite.
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