In many countries, the image we have of German business and management is one of efficiency, formality and organisation. My view was shaken a few years back when I experienced the chaotic programme of work on the railways in and around Berlin, with chaos in stations and no help or communication apparent for confused travellers. Then we had the Brandenburg Airport fiasco, one of the best case studies in my Bad Buying book! It finally opened last year, 10 years behind schedule and billions over budget after a whole spectrum of incompetence, bad planning, fraud, and financial mismanagement had been demonstrated during its construction.  

Another more recent story shows that less than perfect side of German management. Patricia Schlesinger was the €300K a year the director (CEO) of Berlin-based RBB, one of nine regional public broadcasters in the country funded by the taxpayer. But she resigned this week after a series of accusations about money wasted, conflicts of interest and improper procurement – in fact, the word “embezzlement” is even being used.  Berlin’s public prosecutor is looking at accusations she used RBB funds to pay for lavish dinners at her home and private use by her husband of her company car and chauffeur.

Wolf-Dieter Wolf (crazy name, crazy guy…), chairman of the RBB board, also stood down. He is linked to some of the accusations and is seen as being complicit in her behaviour.  Perhaps most extravagant was the €658,112 spent on refurbishing her office, according to The Times – shades of Fred Goodwin, the ex-Royal Bank of Scotland head. When the new RBS HQ opened in 2005 there were reports of over-the-top office furnishings and his own “scallop kitchen” (denied by his lawyers, we should say)!

In Berlin, the parquet flooring for Ms Schlesinger’s office cost a mere €16,783, and (here comes a Bad Buying link) complaints by the internal compliance department that no other quotations for the work had been sought were overridden.

The accusations began in June with a report by the news site Business Insider that Schlesinger’s husband, Gerhard Spörl, a journalist, had been awarded a consultancy contract by the state-owned trade fair company Messe Berlin. That contract was allegedly signed off by the company’s supervisory board chief, the same Wolf-Dieter Wolf. Was this an example of nepotism and favouritism? Then other consulting-type contracts emerged with little evidence of proper procurement, with accusations of Schlesinger and / or Wolf in effect favouring their friends.

Of course, this apparent arrogance and disregard for rules is something we see frequently and is not limited by geography, sector or type of role. (The Bad Buying book has quite a few examples, as you might expect). The boundaries between disregard for the organisation’s money or rules and outright fraud are also sometimes difficult to define exactly. However, there seems to be a character trait that means some people just feel they deserve more, they deserve to be treated differently and the rules don’t or shouldn’t apply to them. Boris Johnson comes to mind, as does Carlos Ghosn, now an international fugitive after running Nissan and being accused of using corporate expenditure for his personal benefit.  

But back to the German broadcaster case, and I’m trying to think of a good way to close this article. I mean, if only there was a word for that feeling of pleasure we get from someone else’s misfortune, particularly when they think they’re better than you…!

The UK National Health Service is one of the largest organisations in the world in terms of number of employees and its running cost. Whilst it is a single organisation in some senses, really it is made up of thousands of smaller organisations, many with considerable levels of autonomy. Even when we think about hospital trusts, each still has its own Board and is set up as an independent entity from a legal perspective, although that is slowly changing with the introduction of the regional Integrated Care System model.

So it is not surprising that over the years, there has always been tension in procurement between the urge to centralise and control more from “the top” (whatever structures might be defined in that way) against the desire for local autonomy and power.  Now no-one would argue for total centralisation (everything needed by every hospital bought from a huge central office somewhere) or total decentralisation (every doctor or hospital negotiating its own deals for pharmaceuticals!)

But getting the balance right has proved difficult. For instance, Ministers persist in claiming “the centre” did a good job in terms of pandemic PPE procurement. But the truth is that pre-pandemic central procurement strategy proved inadequate, and local action was needed to maintain supply in many hospitals. And whilst once the pandemic was underway some central activity was necessary, mandated central buying cost the UK billions in waste and super-profits for suppliers.

The new Chief Commercial Officer for the NHS, Jacqui Rock, who sits in NHS England HQ, recently launched a Central Commercial function for the NHS. A key strand of that is a technology initiative that is designed to help the manage procurement better across the system. The aim is to have a more common approach to procurement, and to start enabling better access to spend data across the whole network. That is a very sensible aim – gathering data does not mean in itself a more central approach to category strategies, and however you want to approach procurement, having good data is essential.

The mechanism for achieving this has raised some eyebrows though. Via Crown Commercial Services, all trusts, integrated care boards and other NHS entities can now use a software platform provided by Atamis, with CCS funding that to the tune of £13 million over three years (it is not clear if CCS has actually “pre-bought” licences here, which could be a risk in itself).

Atamis is a procurement and tendering platform with spend analysis functions as well as tools for managing programmes, tenders, contracts, and supplier relationships. It was chosen for use by NHS England and the central Department two years ago, although NHS Supply Chain chose software firm Jaggaer for their similar requirements.However ,this new contract with Atamis was put in place using the government’s Digital Marketplace, a set of frameworks that gives the public sector access to thousands of suppliers. And it appears that no competitive process was used to choose Atamis. They were simply awarded the contract. Now there are rules (laws) about when you can award a contract in that manner without seeking proposals from other firms also listed in the Marketplace. And I cannot see in this case how a “single tender” can be justified, when there are other firms on the framework who provide similar products and indeed supply many Trusts already.

I should say that I have no axe to grind with Atamis or their product. When I worked at Spend Matters, I had contact with the founder of Atamis and liked him and the business. But the firm was sold to a Canadian software company last year, and the NHS could represent a considerable proportion of their business.  There are also questions about what happens once the 3-year CCS funding ends, dependence (the Atamis product is built on the Salesforce platform) and “lock-in” to Atamis.

When the initiative was announced, there were a whole host of interesting comments from readers of the HSJ (Health Service Journal). This extract from one probably encapsulates much of the content.

“Why has the centre decided to create a monopoly situation, by endorsing, promoting and funding this only provider for, say contracts management? What happens to other providers with better value solutions? Should UK Tech Plc pack up and shut shop? Are these other solution providers now out of the whole NHS market? Why”? 

For me, the most fundamental question is whether it was legal and commercially appropriate to award the contract to Atamis without competition. (There are “business issues” too of course). The new central function should set a good example, and surely competition is the most fundamental principle of good procurement. But given the way the contract was let, I would not be surprised if we see challenges to that process from other suppliers who are clearly at a competitive disadvantage now, with Atamis being available “free”.