Over the weekend, we saw reports that Camelot, the current operator of the UK National Lottery, is going to challenge the government’s decision to award the contract for management of the Lottery to a different firm, Allwyn, headed by a Czech tycoon. That decision follows a lengthy and no doubt exhaustive “procurement” process. This is from The Times (behind the paywall unfortunately).
The Czech bid, led by Sir Keith Mills, the man behind the London 2012 Olympics, and the former J Sainsbury boss Justin King, was deemed to have had an inferior business plan but managed to pip Camelot at the post by promising to deliver a much higher sum for good causes. There are suggestions that Allwyn’s bid was based on a forecast that it would raise £38 billion over the ten-year licence, which starts in 2024. This is believed to be a much higher figure than the forecast included by Camelot … Bidders were asked to supply a detailed forecast of how much they expected to raise, but with no obligation to achieve it or any form of penalty for failing to do so.
So this may come down to an issue that sits behind one of the common causes of “Bad Buying”. In my book of that title it has its own chapter – “Believing the Supplier”.
That can relate to suppliers actually lying or deliberately misleading the buyer. It’s the tech firm that says they can develop and install the new software for you in six months, when they know its going to be more like 18. Or the consulting firm that tells you they have lots of experience running M&A studies in Spain, when in fact they have one junior analyst in the London office who has a girlfriend in Madrid.
But more often it is suppliers whose intentions are good, but make promises and offers that they can’t really deliver on. They really do believe that software will be ready in six months; but they don’t actually have the experience or expertise to make it happen.
This leads to a particular issue in public sector procurement. Because that relies on formal tendering processes (for larger contracts anyway), we see a real difficulty for buyers in assessing two different aspects of the proposals received. They have to evaluate the apparent value of the solution proposed, which is what the legal procurement framework focuses on. But they should also assess the credibility of the proposal – the confidence the buyer can have in its actual delivery.
You might remember the “scandal” back in 2008 when the UK’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which managed the school ‘national curriculum’ and associated testing process, terminated a contract it had put in place with ETS Europe to deliver tests for schoolchildren. ETS failed to meet agreed timescales and the whole thing was a bit of a shambles.
The case illustrated a central challenge in many buying situations – how the buyer can assess whether proposals can actually be delivered by a potential supplier, even if they sound credible. It is relatively easy to write a convincing proposal to carry out services-type work or even to deliver certain physical items. I might tell you in beautifully written prose that my firm can supply you with the finest cocoa beans, or handle your outsourced pension administration absolutely brilliantly. Or even build a nuclear submarine … But how do you know I can actually do it? Here is an extract from Bad Buying that explains what went wrong with ETS, following an independent review into the case.
“The Sutherland Review found that in many ways the procurement (buying) process in this case wasn’t run badly– the authors called it ‘sound’. ETS won with the lowest price, but also scored better than the alternative bidder on non-cost factors. The ‘Gateway reviews’ undertaken by the Office of Government Commerce were in general positive, too. However, the contract and the supplier clearly failed to deliver what was required. Why was that?
Issues were identified by the report around governance, the contract- management approach, some legal issues in the contract and specifications. But the report suggests that the weakness in the selection process came from two key factors. First, the QCA and the consultants running the process did not fully check out the history of previous contracts delivered by ETS. That might have picked up warning signals, as there had been issues with contracts in the United States. Basic financial health checks were done, but not an extensive reputational and performance due diligence.
Second, the buying process did not check that the assumptions about capacity made by ETS in their bid were realistic and accurate. The firm should have been challenged more strongly on its staffing plans. There were also concerns about the ‘end-to-end’ solution proposed and whether the firm really understood how different elements needed to fit together. Those issues appear to have been at the heart of subsequent problems.”
So it is this “confidence in the supplier’s ability to deliver” that has to be assessed somehow, and whether the supplier’s assumptions and plans are “realistic and accurate”. It is not just their conformance to the specification, the elegance of their proposed solution, or indeed the apparent financial benefits they might be offering.
Going back to where we started, it is this issue that may come to the fore in the UK National Lottery case, assuming the decision is challenged. More on that in part 2.