Beware – Conflict of Interest Ahead!

I had the honour to speak at the Procurement Lawyer’s Association (PLA) annual dinner last week in London. 140 lawyers in a room together – actually a surprisingly lively and friendly audience, I’m pleased to say.

I was looking at their website before the event and noticed a paper the PLA produced a couple of years ago, all about conflicts of interest. It has a particular focus on public sector procurement, although many of the comments and recommendations apply just as well to the private sector. It runs to 56 pages, but the “Practical Guidance” summary (page 26) gives you most of the “meat” of the report, and is sensible and thoughtful advice. 

On reflection, I should have said more on that topic in my Bad Buying book. Although it is mentioned in the section on fraud and corruption, there is more I should have said. Talking to one of the lawyers at my dinner table last week, we agreed it is a major topic that is not discussed enough. We also each had some examples that indicate different aspects around the issue.

I remember as an interim CPO having a conversation with a relatively new Chief Executive in a large government organisation. He had joined from a large consulting and services firm, who were about to bid for a very large contract with our organisation.  I needed him to make a conflict of interest declaration, but initially he didn’t see the point as “I don’t work for them any more”.

Do you still have equity in the firm, I asked? Yes, was the reply. Do you still have friends, relatives, or lovers who work there? Yes, he said (to the “friends” at least)!  To be fair, I did get through to him why this mattered, and he agreed that his involvement with the procurement would have to be pretty arm’s length.

Sometimes the conflict can be more subtle and can even veer into real corruption. I knew of one independent consultant who had a good reputation for leading procurement projects in local government for a particular service – let’s say it was catering (it wasn’t, but it was that sort of thing). Oddly, it seemed that all the procurement exercises he ran ended up with the same catering firm winning. I then discovered that between his assignments for different councils, he always went back to consulting work with the same firm!  (Who knows whether he did real work with them or just got paid for his loyalty).

My lawyer friend highlighted a somewhat similar case – an independent consultant leading a procurement exercise who suggested that an unsuccessful bidder should perhaps engage him to provide them with training in how to write better bids. That could have been genuinely well meaning of course – but the price for his training was a lot more than you might expect. The implication seemed to be that employing him might well mean the bidder would do better next time the consultant was in a key project role.

So one point from all that is to look at conflicts of interest for anyone involved with the procurement process – internal staff, consultants or yes, even lawyers! We’ve also talked about the very difficult issue of “future” potential conflicts of interest. Mathew Syed in the Times called this “retroactive inducements” and it covers those cases where someone on the buy side favours a company because they believe, hope or expect that the favoured firm will help them personally in the future, with a great job or other benefits.

We’ve seen that in the procurement world but also more widely with other senior managers and even with politicians and special advisers. George Osborne, ex-UK chancellor, got a ridiculously lucrative job with Blackrock, an investment firm he had been responsible for regulating. That struck me as an unacceptable example of exactly this problem. We’ve regularly seen civil servants and advisers involved in awarding lucrative UK government and health service contracts to consulting or IT firms, then jumping ship for senior roles in the same firm.

Anyway, take a look at the PLA paper fi you are interested in this topic. And if you are running procurement processes, before you get going, don’t be afraid to explain to your colleagues (whoever they are) why this matters and why you need to know if they are conflicted in any way.

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