Earlier this month the first Proctopus Christmas Party and Awards evening took place in the glittering surroundings of … Zoom.  Proctopus is an informal group, largely LinkedIn based, that has grown through this year to provide networking, career support and general community for around a thousand procurement professionals, many of them interims and “solopreneurs”.

Great credit is due to Dave Jones, Keith McCabe, James Meads and Graham Copeland, the main instigators of Proctopus, who have developed something really quite impressive and heart-warming in its goal to improve life for many who have found this year a bit of a struggle!  Anyway, I sponsored a prize for “ worst example of Bad Buying” at the event – the evening raised a couple of thousand pounds for good causes – and we had a live vote between three contenders:

  • UK government PPE procurement
  • “Other” UK government pandemic contracts
  • Forced Labour in Chinese garment manufacturing

All good cheerful stuff! It was a very close poll, but the “other” pandemic contracts won. I guess the audience of procurement folk really weren’t impressed with the scale and number of contracts awarded by the UK government without any real competition or process, covering communications and PR, consultancy, testing kits, track and trace process management … the list goes on.

Just to continue the theme of poor management practices, it has been impossible to follow the enquiry into the Grenfell Fire disaster without feeling strong emotions. Sympathy for the people who lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, but also anger – fury, in fact – and disbelief at the behaviour of firms and individuals who supplied the flammable cladding that caused the fire to become so tragic.

There certainly was some “Bad Buying” within this process too. The Kensington and Chelsea council and housing management organisation have not covered themselves in glory, and that includes procurement practices that clearly did not work well given the end result.

But there were supplier firms such as Celotex, Kingspan and Arconic, some of which blatantly lied, cheated, fiddled test results, and threatened those who raised issues. Frankly, it would have been hard for the best procurement professional to navigate themselves through the cesspool of appalling behaviour from too many individuals on the supply side. The building and construction regulators and authorities also failed in their responsibilities, it should be said.

And now there are also thousands of people – perhaps millions –  around the country stuck in flats they can’t sell because of fears about cladding. In some cases, they are paying huge amounts of money for work to be done or for “fire wardens” to sit around all day just in case a fire breaks out and their building’s cladding kills them.  No-one is taking responsibility for sorting this out, but you would have thought somebody was liable here. I also find it infuriating that our government can find £100 billion for a high-speed railway of doubtful value but can’t spend a tiny fraction of that to solve this problem (or indeed to fix Hammersmith Bridge – but that’s another story).

Anyway, that’s not a very festive story for what will probably be my last article of 2020. Whilst it has been very satisfying to see my book published in 2020, and many thanks to all who have bought it, that’s about all there has been in my personal positive column for the year.  So let’s hope there is more “Good Buying” in 2021, and that generally it is a happier year for all of us.

The second UK National Audit Office report on pandemic procurement was issued recently. Titled “The supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic” it focuses entirely on PPE. It has received less media coverage than its predecessor, which looked at wider procurement issues, although it too had a lot of PPE-related content.

That reduced attention was probably because it lacks some of the obviously newsworthy headlines the first reported generated, around contract awards to firms such as Ayanda Capital and Pestfix, who have been in the news for a while, and discussions of potential conflict of interest at Ministerial level. But that’s a shame, because there are some very interesting findings in the more recent report too, although it still leaves a couple of key questions outstanding.

The report gives more visibility of the process as the pandemic struck in the spring. It clarifies some of the failures we saw around the existing pandemic stockpile, which was a combination of sheer incompetence and a more forgivable lack of preparedness for this type of virus.  Once it became clear that the normal NHS channels, such as Supply Chain on the procurement side and Unipart for delivery couldn’t cope, we saw Lord Deighton getting involved, bringing in people he knew (including HR support through another questionable contract).  We know Clipper won a huge distribution contract, also without any competition, although they seem to have done a pretty good job all in all.

The Parallel Supply Chain buying operation was set up in late March, with one team looking at extending UK manufacturing and another sourcing PPE globally. McKinsey supported the Department in putting together a demand model to predict how much PPE was going to be needed. The teams then went off and agreed contracts with some of the thousands of suppliers who had expressed interest – some of whom came though the “VIP route”, already exposed previously.

That takes us into our three big outstanding issue though.

  1. We still don’t understand the process by which suppliers were selected from those that put themselves forwards. Why did Ayanda Capital win a contract for £250 million? Why not £50 million? Or indeed £500 million? Why did 47 suppliers win contracts, with value ranging from less than a million to the hundreds of millions – was there an overall strategy of some sort, or was it literally the buyers accepting the first offers that were made that got through the approval process?  We know that process was flawed early on by the lack of real due diligence, but we’ll park that for the moment. But the process used for selecting suppliers and determining quantities per contract is still opaque.
  •  Why has the demand model turned out to be just so inaccurate? We are now in a situation where, as NAO says, if the recent rate of use of PPE continues, then the 32 billion items that had been ordered by the Parallel Supply Chain by 31 July could last around five years (with variations across the different types of PPE). The Parallel Supply Chain’s initial estimate of the PPE that would be required nationally anticipated an enormous increase compared with pre-pandemic use, but actual use has been lower than this (although still far higher than pre-pandemic use). What went wrong?
  • There is still some doubt over how much PPE is unusable or at least does not meet original specification. From the report – “The Department (of Health and Social Care) told us that it had identified 195 million items which were potentially unsuitable, which was equivalent to around 1% of the items it had received to date. However, it has not provided us with sufficient information to be able to verify these figures because, it told us, this would compromise its ability to resell the PPE”.   In other words, NAO can’t be sure the Department isn’t fibbing.

Coming back to the demand issue, did the model assume that the absolute peak of PPE usage in March / April would continue forever, and that there would be no reduction in cases as we went into lockdown? Was it the move away from putting patients on ventilators, as clinicians learnt more about optimal treatment pathways?  Were contingencies built on top of contingencies? I understand that the model did initially include the devolved countries (Scotland, Wales, N Ireland) who then went their own way on PPE, but that factor isn’t enough to explain the huge quantities ordered. It’s a shame the NAO report didn’t dig onto this issue a little more deeply, I feel.

By the time that the PPE team was “professionalising” through the summer and bringing in more people with real public procurement experience, I’m told that it wasn’t really a buying job any longer. The vast majority of the contracts were placed in May and June. Through the autumn, teams have been focused more on how to manage this huge over-ordering situation. That’s one of the reasons why UK ports are struggling – they are clogged up with billions of items of PPE, ordered earlier but for winter delivery.

My prediction is that soon, there will be stories of suppliers being paid off – they’ll get the majority of the contract value paid but be told not be bother supplying what is not yet delivered.  There is also a very serious problem here, as a range of new UK- based manufacturers were encouraged to move into this market. But if there is 5 years’ worth of stock (or committed orders) already, who needs more from these possibly expensive UK manufacturers?

I do have sympathy with the people involved here. Predicting demand in the peak of the pandemic must have been a difficult task, that is undeniable. But how did smart civil servants and McKinsey consultants (charging a fortune, no doubt) get it so wrong?  That demand model has cost the taxpayer billions. We have bought far too much stock, and even if it does get used eventually, it was bought at the top of the market, at prices several times the norm in many cases.

The fraud section in my new book was great fun to write. I know you can’t and shouldn’t call fraud “fun” in any sense, but the case studies I researched were interesting, and often quite astonishing.

In one case I saw personally (which I couldn’t mention in any detail in the book) we discovered a fairly senior colleague, who everybody thought was a lovely, capable person, was actually involved in approving six-figure invoices from a fake supplier. The police thought this “firm” was probably linked to the “Russian mafia”, and we only found out about the fraud when the police discovered this gang was receiving large payments from my firm (and told us)!

Anyway, buying-related frauds can involve just internal staff, as in the case of fiddling your expenses or using the company charge card wrongly, or can be purely externally driven, as in the case of many “invoice misdirection” cases, or might involve both internal and external players. That third category is perhaps the most common and includes classic frauds such as overpayments to suppliers or biased supplier selection in return for bribes or inducements to the buyer.

But technology, artificial intelligence in particular, is helping to pick up some frauds through its ability to analyse huge amounts of data and spot trends, patterns, inconsistencies and oddities. I remember a presentation from two or three years back which talked about using AI to search through corporate payments or approvals. The idea was that you might find for instance a budget holder who always submitted an invoice for approval or payment on a Friday afternoon, when it might be scrutinised less carefully! Or someone who always makes purchases with a value of £9,999 if the cut-off for approval is £10K.

But more recently, I learnt of another interesting approach. In this case, the AI focus is on emails and documents that flow within the organisation and to external third parties. It has been developed by a firm called FACT360, which is led by Paddy Lawton, who founded, ran and then sold spend analytics software firm Spend360 to Coupa in 2017. I spoke to Lawton and fellow director Andy Slater to get a quick overview of what they’re up to.

Of their three core products, AI Forensics  is most relevant to buying-related fraud work. It analyses documents and emails and produces a network “map” of who is talking to who within an organisation and across organisational boundaries, including to suppliers, for instance. It generates insights from that communication flows as well as from the content of the messages themselves.

So for example, if you apply the analysis to Enron’s data, before that firm’s crash and disgrace, you can see that one particular person was at the centre of a major web of communication within the firm, even though he wasn’t apparently very senior. It turned out he controlled one of the technology “marketplaces” that enabled Enron to falsely claim to be making money on transactions. This analysis of what FACT360 calls “prestige” can tell you a lot about what is going on within an organisation, and who is really important or powerful. 

“And there are subtle changes in communication behaviour that occur and can be detected when actors plan and engage in covert activity” according to Slater.

One of the interesting corruption cases in my Bad Buying book tells the story of the Sainsbury’s supermarket potato buyer, who conspired over some years with a major supplier to pay over the odds for potatoes in return for bribes. Might Fact360 artificial intelligence have picked this up?  Probably, says Slater. It is likely that emails between the main players would have been more frequent than for other similar suppliers, or show different patterns in terms of timing or even use of language. There might have been more obvious clues in the content too.

Of course, knowing that your email trail could be used in his way might discourage fraudsters from using that medium, but there is always going to be some record of contact, unless the participants are using real secret service tactics! And the beauty of these emerging AI technologies such as FACT360 is that the user doesn’t need to know or define what they are looking for – the system will highlight where it finds potential “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it. 

We’re still at the early stages of understanding just how AI is gong to affect our lives, and it may be that some implications will not be positive for many of us. But using it to detect and deter fraud and corruption in our organisations – and reduce Bad Buying – must be one of the more positive aspects of this fascinating technology.