Without fanfare or comment, in the middle of the holiday season, the UK government recently published the data for spend with SMEs (small and medium enterprises) for 2021/22.  This covers central departments, and some associated bodies, although the definition of what is in and what is out is not always clear. The data is given as direct spend – money that goes straight to the small firms – and indirect, the spend that goes via larger firms that then use SMEs in their supply chain.

It is not unusual for it to take over a year from the end of the period in question before data is published. That is in part because it does take a while to gather the data, but I suspect the publication might have happened sooner if there had been a positive story to tell.

But the headline number was that SME percentage spend declined in 2021/22 compared to 2020/21.  The total was down from 26.9% to 26.5%, and the direct spend was down from 14.2% to 12.3%. That does not look good against the government target of 33% of spend.

Indirect spend was up by 1.4% but that was not enough to compensate for the drop in direct spend.  It looks like the main reason for the overall decline was a big drop in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) SME spend year on year. I suspect that is the “PPE effect” – as we know, there was lots of PPE bought in 2020 and 2021 from smaller firms. They were often crooks, chancers and friends of ministers, but they were SMEs, nonetheless.

Until the pandemic, the DHSC spend was relatively small compared to MOD and Transport – the two “traditional” big spenders.  Most health spend was out in the Trusts so not captured in this data. But the huge amount of “central “ buying, on PPE but also track and trace and other projects, pushed up the significance of DHSC in the overall numbers.

In 2019/20, DHSC spend was just £3.1 billion against MOD’s £21.1 billion. But the figure shot up to £13.3B in 20/21 (MOD was £19.5B) and was still £11.5B in 21/22.  In 20/21, 23.3% of the DHSC total was direct SME spend, so that made the year look better, but by 21/22 that dropped to 14.2%, pulling down the whole percentage.

I’m going into some detail there because it does demonstrate how ridiculous looking at the overall number actually is. When one factor – PPE – in one Department can skew the whole data set, it is pretty useless. But let’s go back in time and look at how this target emerged.  

Supporting smaller firms was one of the first “social value” type issues government embraced. I worked in the Office of Government Commerce (part of Treasury, the UK finance ministry) as a consultant back in 2009 on the implementation of the 2008 Glover report – “Accelerating the SME economic engine: through transparent, simple and strategic procurement”.  (That link took some finding!)

But Sally Collier (OGC’s Policy director) and I didn’t really like the idea of targets for spend with SMEs for various reasons. One was the difficulty of setting sensible targets, which really needed to vary by department to be meaningful. We were interested in departments and buyers simply doing the right things, and therefore also worried that targets would mean effort going into the data, not the real action. But our advice was ignored and after the 2010 election a 25% target was set. 

It quickly emerged that 25% was unachievable. The Ministry of Defence and the Highways Agency (Transport) accounted for almost half of central government procurement spend and there was no way an SME was going to build a warship or the M25 motorway.  So the target was changed to an “aspiration”, a classic Francis Maude fudge, and then indirect spend was included to make it easier to hit the target.

But many of the first-tier suppliers to government have no idea really how much they spend with SMEs, so the data is pretty dodgy. Then the 25% target – which had never been achieved – was stupidly changed in 2015 to 33%, purely because the Cameron government wanted to say something positive for the “small business” lobby in their election manifesto.  And 33% is unachievable too, as we’ve seen, even including indirect spend.

The other issue is whether supporting SMEs is the right target today. We have become much more sophisticated in the 15 years since Glover and now most large private firms are interested in supporting diverse suppliers, not simply small firms.

So why not shift the focus to using government procurement to support charities and social enterprises, minority owned firms, innovative businesses, firms in deprived areas or those that employ lots of disabled people?  You don’t see Unilever or other admired private sector businesses defining some prospective suppliers as special just because they are small. Indeed, many SMEs are small because they want to be, or because they just aren’t very good.

But there has been good work in government over the years in terms of helping SMEs. For example, even back in 2009, MOD led some impressive initiatives to promote SMEs through their supply chain. But really, this element of public procurement policy is crying out for a refresh, a more nuanced set of objectives and – if we must have targets – something that is realistic and motivating, not a painful data collection exercise that is bound to end in failure.  

A few weeks ago, the UK National Audit Ofice issued a report titledCompetition in public procurement – lessons learned”. 

Unlike most of that organisation’s reports, it wasn’t looking at a specific project within one Department, but rather looked across central government at how procurement “competition” is working to help “support efficiency, innovation and quality in public services”. As the NAO says, when competition is lacking or ineffective, other safeguards need to be pursued otherwise the end results can be negative for the taxpayer. 

But the overall findings given in the report do not paint a reassuring picture.

“Our review of competition in public procurement has found that government cannot show how well competition is working, and that the structures to encourage and support the use of competition are not all working as intended. Departments are unclear how to engage with the market before they let a contract, and do not consistently follow central guidance. For example, they routinely extend contracts rather than retendering them. The Cabinet Office provides guidance but does not take advantage of the data it collects to understand more about competition and gain further benefits”.

Extending contracts can be done for good reasons, but often it is just the lazy option. It may be happening more often because of a shortage of staff today but that is no excuse really. The need for some further analysis of this and action from Cabinet Office is even more pressing when you read this.

“Government procured 72% of its large contracts through frameworks in 2021-22 compared to 43% in 2018-19. Frameworks are designed for procuring common goods and services to allow departments to access economies of scale, but they are not always the way to achieve the best competition. Guidance produced by government states that where the goods or services are not common, a full procurement process should be undertaken.”

I found that genuinely shocking. I’m not surprised use of frameworks has risen, and used properly, they can be an excellent mechanism. However, to see that growth, almost a doubling of the number of contracts awarded in that manner over just 3 years, is quite shocking. It really does require some serious analysis as to why this has happened and what the consequences might be. NAO didn’t look at how often “direct awards” are made from frameworks unfortunately.  Those awards are obviously much more anti-competitive than running a proper “call-off competition” from a framework (although even that does of course shut out non-framework participants). 

The NAO makes some sensible recommendations, suggesting Cabinet Office should work with Departments to improve data and published information, drive better early market engagement and look more carefully at the frameworks issue. But there seems little doubt that competition in central government procurement has declined dramatically in recent years. If like me you believe that competition is THE most fundamental driver for value for money, as well as an essential element in the fight against fraud and corruption, that has to be worrying.

My feeling is that too many people, from politicians to senior budget holders to some commercial / procurement people themselves, are happy for frameworks to be used and contracts extended. That is both to save time and money on running procurement processes, and in many cases, so they can fundamentally choose which supplier they want to use and just put a veneer of governance around that. Occasionally that choice is driven by corruption , but usually it is people who genuinely think they are doing the right thing. But it is fundamentally anti-competitive.

There is no doubt that Gareth Rhys Williams, (government’s Chief Commercial Officer), Crown Commercial Services and the GCO have done some good work in terms of the “inputs” to government procurement. The focus on people and training, and the various impressive “playbooks” are evidence of this. But certainly from the outside, there is less evidence of the tangible outputs that have resulted from this work, other than somewhat  spurious “savings” numbers that are produced.

Indeed, on that note, the NAO says this in the recent report. “Government monitors savings from individual frameworks by comparing their prices to estimations of prices charged by suppliers outside the framework”.  That’s not exactly rigorous, is it? Particularly when the procurement process for one of the largest frameworks (the management consulting example I analysed here) was explicitly designed to allow the big firms to win a place without needing to submit particularly competitive pricing.  (I should say that I believe Simon Tse has done a great job running the operational arm of Crown Commercial Services in terms of meeting that organisation’s objectives in recent years. I might question some of those objectives however!)

But more competitive government supply markets surely must be a fundamental objective for government procurement. The NAO report suggests that it has not been achieved over recent years.

I’ve decided that I’m going to win the 100 metres sprint at next year’s Paris Olympics. I believe the benefits for the UK economy will be huge and I will inspire millions with my efforts. My wife has pointed out that my best time for the event was 13.8 seconds, recorded at Houghton School some years ago (many years ago to be honest). I need to beat that by some 4.5 seconds next year, but I am quietly confident.

However, in her annual report on my planned activities, Jane has had the temerity to rank my chances of success as “red”.  That red rating indicates that “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.” That means “there are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable”.

I am disgusted by this lack of positivity. My gold medal will lead to transformational benefits for generations to come, improving connections and helping grow the economy. And I have already spent billions on food supplements, very expensive training programmes and massages, so you wouldn’t want to waste that money, would you?

That is pretty much the situation with HS2, the high-speed rail programme that is going to link London with other cities in England. The latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which sits within the government’s Cabinet Office, has given the first two phases (1 and 2a) of the HS2 programme an unachievable “red” rating, defined as above.

There is no mention of HS2 anywhere in the report’s various narrative sections, despite the fact it is the biggest single programme in the UK in terms of cost.  In the table that list all 250+ projects, all it says next to the red rating is this. “A new railway connecting the country’s biggest cities and economic regions enabling rebalancing and regional growth in the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse – through a high capacity, high speed and low carbon transport solution”.

And the Department for Transport’s response is also pretty much as above.

Spades are already in the ground on HS2, with 350 construction sites, over £20bn invested to date and supporting over 28,500 jobs. We remain committed to delivering HS2 in the most cost-effective way for taxpayers. HS2 will bring transformational benefits for generations to come, improving connections and helping grow the economy”.

That really is treating us as idiots. No attempt to actually respond to the undeliverability issues, or explain how “red” will turn to amber and green, just that they’re committed to it and we’ve spent a sh** load of money already, so hey, let’s spend another £50 billion or so. At least.  

Clearly, all those supposedly super-clever people in Treasury and Department of Transport have never heard of the sunk cost fallacy. Well, of course they have heard of it but this is politics. Civil servants just have to do what their masters tell them, but you can be sure HS2 will be disappearing from a lot of senior peoples’ cvs on LinkedIn in a few years’ time. This is just a terrible, disgraceful and ridiculous waste of public money, from the beginning when the business case was manipulated to appear positive, and my daughter’s generation will be asking questions for years to come about just how we allowed this to happen.

William Hague in The Times agreed.

“If I were still in government, I would be climbing the walls about this. I would want to stop all work on HS2 today, but I know I would be told that the contracts signed for its construction make that impossible. I would want to fire somebody senior, but I would be informed that the chief executive of HS2 Ltd already quit last month so that satisfaction would be denied me.

Then I would say that if we can’t cancel it we should at least make sure that the bits that haven’t been abandoned will work well, but I would be told that the cost of making it start in Euston has doubled recently, that no one could decide how many platforms they wanted to build, that this crucial part is currently unaffordable and that the transformational, high-speed connection of Birmingham to central London might not even reach the latter. And then I would want to scream”.

Indeed, the IPA report is generally disappointing. It is full of case studies of successful projects and programmes (244 now in the portfolio), with little or no discussion on the problems. And I’m not sure how the rapid charging fund for EVs can be seen as a success when you read this. Most of the case studies have a few initial issues but are turned round thanks to the IPA to deliver success.  It reads in the main like a marketing document from a consulting firm. (I actually wonder whether privatisation is on the cards?)  I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, at the end of the day, the IPA is not truly independent, it is part of government, so it does have to toe the party line.

It is also noticeable that so many projects are rated amber – no less than 80%. That can be a bit of a cop-out rating really. It says there are issues, but nothing too much to worry about. I think when the IPA or its predecessor first started, there were amber/red and amber/green ratings too, but I suspect that put too many projects into the (at least partially) red bracket, which is embarrassing for the government. But really having 80% of the projects ranked at the same level reduces the usefulness for any external scrutiny.  

Anyway, in the couple of hours it has taken me to write this, another £4 million or so has been spent on HS2. What a waste.