The Big Interview with Orbis Procurement

Could you tell us a bit about yourselves?

Darron: I am Director of Orbis Procurement, which is a partnership of three local authorities, and as such am Director of Procurement for Surrey County Council, East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council. Orbis Procurement provides procurement services to the three Councils as well as a range of district and borough councils that gain significant benefits from working in partnership with us.

I have been in procurement way too long, I stopped counting after 25 years!  

I came up through the accountancy route but quite quickly moved into procurement as I found it much more interesting.

I have been doing this across the public and private sectors for getting on 30 years now and have been in Surrey for just over 3 years.

Keith: I am Deputy Director of Orbis Procurement and have worked with Surrey Council for 10 years, before that I spent the majority of my working career in financial services and life insurance. 

Again, predominantly in procurement. 

Darron and I have similar day-to-day responsibilities within our organisation, but given the size and complexity of our company, I assume a leading role in our commercial endeavours. This involves overseeing various service offerings, such as our Sourcing Solution team, which supports multiple councils in executing their procurement activities. Additionally, I am responsible for driving our technology initiatives, including e-tendering platforms, contract management, and ERP integrations. I also serve as the sponsor for our all of our complex procurement activities.

How is your team structured at Orbis?

DC: The way in which we are structured is that we have a number of key sovereign clients within the partnership. Within each of those, we have our strategic procurement functions that serve those sovereign authorities. 

They are supported by the Orbis Procurement Hub which is a centralised resourced model providing procurement resources to deliver all our procurement projects – within Orbis Procurement we treat every procurement as a project or a programme of work. 

We have around 2000 projects in our pipeline and carry out around 600 procurements a year, so each time we start a new one, the team within that category area takes the lead then we assign resources from the hub to support and deliver those programmes.

That gives us much more flexibility of resourcing across the patch. 

If one authority is doing more and one is doing less, we can move resources to manage those peaks and troughs, which allows us to level out the resourcing of how we deliver these projects, that works really well. 

All our procurement teams are supported by our central teams that look after our systems, programme management and our Insights team which manages all our procurement spend analytics and provides a significant amount of procurement-related data insights.

In addition to this, we have a dedicated policy function that provides professional advice and support around key policy areas such as modern slavery, social value, and environmental and sustainable procurement. Furthermore, we are exploring how we can bring greater diversity and inclusion into our supply chain through EDI work. 

The other two functions we have within a service, and we are quite a broad service in many ways, are the Sourcing Solutions Team that Keith directly looks after, which looks after our low cost, low complexity procurement – essentially our fast turnaround procurement activity so we can take a lot of that noise out of our strategic procurement functions. 

We are also just piloting a Contract Management Advisory Service (CMAS), so we in procurement look after everything from the “yes, I want to buy something” through to “here is the contract awarded” and we hand that over to the service to deliver and manage the contract.

The CMAS programme will provide additional services to help teams manage those contracts as well as provide a turn-around resource to parachute into work to turn around failing contracts, or those which could fail in the near future. 

We are a very broad service; it is not just procurement. 

It is contract management, it is low-cost sourcing, and the whole policy side. 

Our Policy through Procurement framework, which is about how procurement can be a lever to deliver organisational policy, I think is one of the big fundamental changes we have made in the last couple of years regarding how we operate.

KC: From a structural point of view that is exactly right. 

What we have found over the recent years is that there has been a lot of noise around contract management, there tended to be a “let and forget” type process that went on, we are not alone in that. 

Local authorities and central government are not very good on fulfilling and monitoring their contractual obligations, so we have recognised that, and we have had put in place a contract management framework which provides over 30 tools and e-learning packages for contract managers our model also aligns to the contract management training through World Commerce & Contracting (WWC) and Government Commercial Function (GCF). 

What we have found is this framework sets the best practice standards for our organisation but actually deep down understanding those contracts people just need more help. 

We have a vast disparity between what our contract management expertise is within the organisation. 

Even down to the fact that some people don’t even recognise themselves as being Contract Managers, instead, they may recognise themselves as being Commissioners. 

So, our role there is to provide help and guidance around that. 

The Sourcing Solutions service is the bit we have really found some traction with within other local authorities where that low value under £100,000 or even under £50,000 is where people just need to see a quick turnaround. 

It takes nearly as much time to do something around £50,000 as it does around £1,000,000 because people are going through the same process.

We just want to relieve the pressure from those authorities for that type of work. 

We tend to take a “framework first” approach because there are some really good frameworks out there and we use a technology that lists all of the available frameworks so we can assess on a category by category the most appropriate route to market. 

When talking to our stakeholders I would simply say it may take you 6-9 months to run through a tender process, it might take 6-9 weeks to do it on a framework. Where is the value in doing it yourself? 

Is the value in creating your own framework or is the value in contracting it quickly from someone else’s framework, you may not get exactly what you want but if it is broadly right the value might be in the speed to market at that point. 

How much of a challenge does the geography you cover create?

DC: It does provide a challenge to a certain extent although we are all in one region, in the sense of Surrey, East Sussex and Brighton bordering on each other which certainly helps. 

I think the key thing is how we coordinate our procurement activity and our resourcing across our projects. 

We have gone through quite a significant transformation programme over the last few years and one of the things we looked at is about putting better technology in place and better communication sharing. 

In some respects, the advent of Covid and the fact that everybody was working remotely has actually put forward a new way of working for us, we work a lot more remotely now. 

We come together for team meetings and certain events but a lot of the work we do is done remotely. 

It has become less of a barrier from an operational perspective. 

How much synergy is there across the various councils?

KC: When Surrey and East Sussex first came together under Orbis Procurement we did a piece of work around synergies and our supplier base was around 50% of the same suppliers. 

You may say, well of course because you are both delivering under the same statutory requirements, but that was quite eye-opening for us that two organisations that have never come together have a 50% supply base that is identical. 

The area that it is not identical in is social care, social care is very localised as the market is predominantly Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs). 

Councils sometimes think of themselves as unique entities, but they actually often do very similar things.

Geographically, it is a bit of a double-edged sword because we can leverage our geography and our size on our supply chain but there is the other edge to that sword.   This is when our scale becomes a problem when we want to encourage SMEs to work with us. 

There is a fine balance around when we use scale and when we try to encourage the SME market, we try to lot contracts out to become attractive to SMEs but still have the scale as well.

With categories such as energy, scale helps, but within an SME market when you are looking for social care that doesn’t help. 

We then talk about regionalised scopes of work.

DC: One thing I would add to that on the scale side is there are areas that make sense for us to aggregate spend and in some areas it wouldn’t be sensible to do that. 

But what we can do is aggregate knowledge and intelligence, we can share the tender documents. 

Even though the three authorities may be doing different things, the actual production of the documents that go out to tender we can share across. 

In some senses, the act of doing procurement becomes quicker and slicker because we have that bank of knowledge. 

KC: Social care represents a large percentage of our expenditure, and it was a challenging market before Covid, in terms of capacity, cost, rates of pay and payment to providers. 

The cost-of-living crisis has put more pressure on an already pressurised system and again, we are now looking at how we respond to those challenges by looking at our approach to contractual terms, prompt payment, rates of pay and long-term partnerships and relationships rather than spot purchases. 

Long gone are the days you put out a tender and lots of people bid, you now have to reassure people that you are a customer of choice and look at how to make working with us easier. 

We are working to make it easier for our suppliers to work with us, but we are not there yet. I am sure if you spoke to our suppliers, they would say we have a way to go but we are on the right trajectory.

KC: The other side of it is we are working much more closely through the Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) with our health colleagues. 

That in itself has the opportunity to bring some real benefits but also brings another layer of complexity. 

There are times we could be running a procurement on behalf of the integrated care system but ultimately it will be on NHS contract and regulatory processes. It adds multiple layers of governance and approvals. 

There is a lot of work we are doing to streamline that to make integrated procurement and delivery much more effective. 

The ability of the system to work together will drive huge benefits to residents and people receiving the care. 

It is about us getting our systems in order to be able to deliver and support that.  

Has the labour shortage that started in Brexit and increased during the pandemic impacted your suppliers’ ability to provide the quality of social care the councils need?

DC: I’m not sure it has impacted the ability in terms of the quality, but it does put a lot of pressure on in terms of having the resilience within their staffing. 

It is having an impact in terms of availability and that adds price pressures and inflationary pressures onto the system, it is undoubtedly having an impact yes, but we are seeing that manifest more in terms of availability and less in terms of quality.

Darron, your background includes twelve years as a consultant, how much of a shift was it to move to the world of public sector and what made you make that move?

It is interesting because I spent the first nearly 15+ years of my career in the public sector, I started in central government, then went to MOD then to local government in Hertfordshire and a London borough then back into central government in the Department for Education before I went into consultancy. 

So, I had been working in those areas and then I did 12 years in consultancy altogether before coming back into the public sector, but I predominantly worked with public sector clients. 

I did a lot of procurement in the International Development space, buying goods and services to support aid programmes overseas as well as leading complex procurements and government outsourcing programmes.

Even though I was in the private sector in consultancy I was still delivering public sector projects on the whole. 

So, it was an active decision to come back into the public sector, I had done my time travelling around and wanted to get back to doing something I really believed in which is delivering public sector services.

Then this job came up which is one of the biggest local government procurement jobs, running the Orbis Procurement service, one of the biggest procurers in local government, so it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. 

Using all the skills and experience I have gained delivering or transforming procurement services is a fantastic background for this role because we are on a transformation journey, are proud of the service we deliver and have a strong ambition to grow and support other Councils with the procurement ambitions.

I spend a lot of time dealing with the strategy but also want to encourage the next generation of procurement people into the profession. 

Using the skill and experience to where procurement has taken me in my career to use that as a mechanism to support those new entrants.  We always say ‘No one ever leaves school wanting to be in procurement’ but actually there is a huge career opportunity here that can take you around the world and get you involved in so many exciting things. 

For me, the richness of a career it has given me is now something I want to bring into all of the Orbis partners and how we build a procurement function for the future.

Keith, you have worked in financial services and now in the public sector what do you feel are the key differences having worked on both sides of the fence?


If you have the ability to procure goods or services, you can do so in both the private and public sectors.

When I first entered the field of local government procurement, it felt like venturing into the unknown. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

However, as someone who receives public services, I realised that I could make a difference. Living in the area where I operate, I had lofty aspirations of fixing everything.

Local and central government often receive negative publicity due to the transparency of their operations and I completely agree with high levels of transparency, however, our failures are exposed for everyone to see, we need to identify the lesson and learn from them. In contrast, when you work for a corporate organisation, your failures are somewhat shielded from public scrutiny.

Fortunately, most of the procurement processes we handle within local authorities and central governments run smoothly.

One of the key differences in this field is the focus on providing value to residents rather than shareholders. Instead of following corporate procurement practices, we adhere to the Public Contracts Regulations (2015) (PCRs) I prefer to refer to them as frameworks rather than rules as they allow some flexibility.

Having spent the last 10 years in local government it is a great career which covers a wide range of expenditure categories (450 at the last count), This level of spend diversity is rarely found in the corporate world.

One day we might be involved in constructing bridges, and roads, (yes and fixing potholes), the next day we could be purchasing fire trucks, and then we might be dealing with social care, consultancy, or HR IT systems. There is tremendous variety, although procurement often fails to showcase itself effectively.

Within local government, especially where we are, we are able to have that conversation around service shaping, around scope, deliverables and how things will work. Therefore, the outcomes of our efforts are tangible, and we have the ability to shape them for residents.

You both have a CIPS qualification, how important has that been to your careers?


The CIPS qualification was good it gave me a very good grounding in the basis of Procurement; however, it didn’t get me ready for a career in Procurement.

With reference to Local & Central government, CIPS doesn’t particularly help because there is a lot of focus in CIPS learning around logistics and the private sector, there is very little around the public sector and I think that is something that CIPS needs to improve on. 

Personally, CIPS probably hasn’t helped me, particularly in the last 10/15 years, it is just a name above a door and I think CIPS need to look at how it works with organisations like Orbis Procurement to deliver more benefit i.e. we have 100 procurement professional with more than 50% qualified to MCIPS that’s a lot of subscription fees at we are paying for.   

CIPS also need to define the difference between MCIPs and FCIPs and it appears they can’t articulate that very well, and I think there is a bit around how we bring those senior professional procurement people together to drive the profession forward. 

I want to see how CIPS is encouraging the next generation of people into the profession.

DC: Very similar really, for me CIPS, if you’re working in public sector procurement CIPS is the badge you have to have. 

It is very much around MCIPs qualification, it is the baseline you need. 

There are other qualifications out there, but none really have the weight and presence of CIPS. 

I think my frustration with CIPS is exactly what Keith has been saying, I am FCIPs there should be a differentiation about how these senior people can help drive the profession a lot more. 

The only other thing I would say about CIPS is that it is very private sector-focused. 

I don’t often see much around the public sector.  

We manage a procurement spend of around £2 billion per annum but if you look at what local government and central government spend it is hundreds or thousands of billions that are managed by these procurement professionals. 

If you look at the CIPS awards that are coming up shortly and the judging panels and the top 30 people in Procurement, they are nearly always private sector, even though the scope and scale of what we do is significantly bigger.

For me, CIPS needs to recognise its audience base and needs to do more to support entry into the procurement profession over and above a qualification. 

For me, it is the badge I needed to have, could I have done this without it?


You have recently created a modern slavery strategy and statements what does this incorporate and why do you think the creation of a modern slavery statement is falling into the procurement function?

DC: There was a requirement on us to start producing modern slavery statements and for us, the thinking around it was to actually put dedicated resources into modern slavery as, you know, 70%+ of our services are outsourced and a number of those services have the propensity to attract cases of modern slavery, whether that is in care homes, refuse collection and other areas. 

From our perspective, part of that approach is identifying those contracts where there is potential for modern slavery to exist. 

We felt it was our duty to put a modern slavery approach into place and to actively look at those contracts and work with those services to put measures into our tenders and projects that can help to eliminate modern slavery from our services’ supply chain.

For me it was one of the fundamental stages to go through, the legislation asks us to put a backwards-looking statement into what has happened I think there is a lot more we could do about driving forward, and actually how do we look to eradicate it as far as we can from those contracts before they are even let.

KC: It has been a real eye-opener we have recruited Dr Akilah Jardine, previously with the Nottingham Right Lab, to look at modern slavery for us, she has huge amounts of experience, has consulted with central government and is now embedded into our Policy team.

Every member of staff has gone through the modern slavery training, everybody is now aware of what we need to do, the industries that have been more prevalent to modern slavery in our supply chain as well as what we need to be asking our supply chains. 

This is a proactive look into our contracts to understand what we are looking for, and what we are going to do when we find it, as I have learnt, we probably have modern slavery concerns in our supply chains it’s just we need to do more to educate and identify them.

There are elements of modern slavery that need to be picked up across all directorates, but I think procurement has got a role there, to work with its supplier base and through contracts to ensure those tenders are fit for purpose and monitor modern slavery risks.

We need to be front and centre in driving policy through the organisation, that way you get a much more horizontal push into the organisation rather than just a silo down into procuring things. 

We want to be there in many different guises in the organisation, whether that be procurement, contract management or sustainability. 

Procurement sometimes takes a backwards step in this way, but I think we have taken a forward’s step to say, ok, let’s position ourselves to do this. 

Let’s drive it through our supply chains and make a difference.

KC: It is an area we are investigating; we look after our core customers, and we are starting to do more with other districts and boroughs and other district councils are coming to us and saying can we help. 

Over and above the Sourcing Solutions or our core services offer, I think some of these policy areas are where we can really help.

The Policy through Procurement framework is a key fundamental part of our business, it is a key template for us about how procurement adds value over and above the savings. 

There is a much bigger agenda here that procurement should have a voice in, and it shouldn’t sit elsewhere as we are the ones with the most influence over the supply chain. 

The key thing for me is procurement should be a strategic value-adding service, not a tender factory. 

We are here to do the strategic engagement and design procurement strategies that deliver the outcomes for the residents who receive the end product of our delivery and manage those relationships it is not just about turning the handles and churning out contracts.

KC: It really is trying to move the organisation and procurement past the “how much did you save last year” questions; We need to stop relying on how much we save as a marker for good Procurement.

 It is not a metric of how good you are.

It could be based on bad budgeting or market conditions. 

You might not be saving at all but doing a good job. 

It is not our money to save anyway, it is residents’ money, or it is the services’ money, it is not procurement’s money.

Net zero in supply chain or scope three emissions is high on your agendas and with procurement playing a really leading role there how much emphasis are councils placing on those areas and how have you and Orbis helped to try to achieve those goals?

There are two sides to that, each of our partner authorities now shares a common Environmentally Sustainable Procurement policy and then this is backed up by dedicated resources in the policy team that focuses on sustainable procurement, net zero, and carbon reduction. We are in a position where we are able to advise services and customers on how to build carbon reduction plans into their tendering processes. 

We need to look at how we coordinate our responses for how we drive forward the wider impacts for our scope 3 emissions, but also elements of what the council produces itself. 

There is a strong recognition that we need to start incorporating this into all our services. 

Given that 90% of our emissions come from our supply chain activities there is a huge amount of work that we need to do around this area. 

We can’t really just leave it for the services to do we need to look at how our procurement can be a real lever to deliver those areas.

KC: We are in our infancy around Carbon Reduction and sustainability relative to things like social value which we have been looking at for ten years; we need standard models and metrics around how we account for it and what it looks like. 

I think one of the best things procurement to do at the moment is get out on the road and talk to some SMEs about what this means to them, what they can do, what are we looking for, how we help them to reduce and probably most importantly what can we learn from them, I am always keen to harness the power of innovation through our supply chains

We have got lots to do here, the market is very confused in terms of how it produces its own standards around scope 3, there has to be a standardised way of delivering that monitoring as well. 

We need to pay attention to how we measure it, and how we contract manage it and again this falls back on to the contract manager to make sure that they are being enabled to deliver effectively as well. 

It is a big area that we need to focus on. 

A lot of it is going to be around educating our supplier base around what we want – all of our organisations have made ambitious net zero commitments, we have all done climate emergency statements, we know where we are, we know it is an imperative. 

I just think we are really struggling to deliver upon those ambitions, and so is central government as well, we just need to think about what is the baseline at the moment and what categories are the biggest contributors to that.   From there, we can work to reduce those down in a targeted way, rather than try to get to a net zero across the board as in some industries that are going to be nearly impossible, so what is our target around some of those industries? 

We just need to work around what our reduction plan looks like, is it sustainable and without it costing us and the organisation a fortune to get there. How do we move to a position of employing incremental improvements which have significant positive sustainable and environmental impact resulting from our contracting.

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