In early December the UK Government Cabinet Office published its response to its consultation on proposed new UK public procurement regulations. I was hoping to see what the real experts (Arrowsmith, Telles, Sanchez-Graells etc) thought of the response before going into print, but let’s give it a shot anyway! 

These new regulations in the UK will supersede the previous EU Regs, and will define the way that over £300 billion a year is spent by public sector organisations. The rules may seem unimportant to the average citizen, but getting value for money from this huge spend (£6,000 per year for every adult in the country), and avoiding fraud and corruption are fundamental issues – they have a direct impact on how much tax we all pay, for a start!

The first point to make about the Government’s response is that those who participated in the consultation exercise weren’t wasting their time.  We’ve seen past consultations in different areas of policy where the government seemed to be just ticking the box (“we’ve consulted”) and showed no real desire to change initial proposals or listen to advice. But in this case, credit to the Cabinet Office procurement policy folk – and their political masters – for taking on board many of the most significant points raised by respondents.

That includes for instance retaining the “light touch” regime (with some improvements) for certain procurements, an approach that was seen as helpful by many local authorities and health bodies. Whilst the specific Utilities Regulations will still go, that sector will be able to continue with some of the special “flexibilities” buyers there find useful – the original proposal would have abolished those.

The central governance of the new regime has been watered down after many who commented (including me) expressed concern about an over-powerful new Cabinet Office unit sitting in judgement over buyers, with the ability to intervene or effectively even take over a procurement function that stepped out of line. The new proposals pull back from that, looking instead to build on current powers, although there will be “a duty for contracting authorities to implement recommendations to address non-compliance of procurement law, where breaches have been identified”, which seems reasonable.

The proposal to cap damages where buyers break the rules and get sued by bidders has been dropped – to me, that seemed to be largely addressing a non-existent problem in any case. But the government is still looking at “other measures aimed at resolving disputes faster which would reduce the need to pay compensatory damages to losing bidders after contracts have been signed”.

Transparency is a key issue. The proposals certainly should help in some areas – for instance, by increasing disclosure when contracts are extended or varied.  Following consultation, “we intend to ensure the transparency requirements are proportionate to the procurements being carried out and are simple to implement”. That is hard to argue with, and of course focusing on the most significant contracts is understandable.

But I do still worry that the barriers provided by exemptions from Freedom of Information rules could make it difficult for spend to be properly scrutinized. The reluctance of politicians recently to tell us what went on across a whole range of pandemic-related contracts shows why this is so important. We can’t let UK public procurement slip into the morass of cronyism and corruption that many countries around the world experience, and the last two years have shown we are not immune to that threat.  

Perhaps the biggest question about the proposed changes is around the basic strategy of freeing up contracting authorities from highly structured processes, Instead, buyers will have more scope to design their own processes, within certain broad parameters around fairness and (to some extent) transparency. But that might increase the burden on suppliers if they have to cope with many different approaches and processes when they want to bid for government work, rather than just a handful of set procedures.

However, I don’t think in practice that politicians would have accepted a UK regime that was largely unchanged. “We need to show that we can do things better than the EU” would have been the (not unreasonable) objective behind the new rules. So that additional freedom was always likely to be part of the package – whether it “reduces bureaucracy” or increases it (from the supplier perspective) remains to be seen.

Similarly, we will have to see whether that freedom leads to more commercial approaches to procurement, better use of negotiation and ultimately better value for the taxpayer. Or will it mean  more corrupt procurement, with the flexibility used to give contracts to friends, relatives, cronies, attractive blond American IT experts and random pub landlords? 

That uncertainty means we won’t know for several years whether the new regulations are a success or not. And that leads to a final question – how will we know?  What are the critical success measures, the results, outputs or outcomes that would lead us to say, “yes, the new procurement regulations really have made a difference”?   I’ll leave that question for another day.

Today, our final two Bad Buying awards for 2021!

Creative Fraud:  I-Tek, its Owner and Staff

Multiple Fraud Related to Imported Goods (and more…)

This case may seem relatively small compared  to  some of the mega-waste examples we have seen this year, but what made it a worthy winner was the way it combined three distinct types of procurement fraud in one rather neat package.

Beyung S. Kim, owner of Iris Kim Inc, also known as I-Tek, and his employees, Seung Kim, Dongjin Park, Chang You, Pyongkon Pak, and Li-Ling Tu, pleaded guilty to a procurement fraud scheme involving millions of dollars in government contracts over several years, mainly supplying various US defence agencies. They were sent to prison in August 2021, after providing everything from swimming trunks for West Point cadets to spools of concertina wire. The problem was that the goods were made in China, but were illegally re-labelled to look like US-made products. That violated the terms of the contracts as well as laws that stipulate certain contracts must be fulfilled by US-made products.

The second fraud came when investigators found that an employee who was a disabled military veteran was listed as the firm’s president in some bids – but he wasn’t. That meant the firm was eligible for contracts reserved for companies owned by disabled ex-service people. (We’ve seen a number of frauds of that nature in recent years, so of which are featured in my Bad buying book).  Finally, the conspirators also submitted false documents and lied about the value of the goods imported into the U.S. to avoid higher duties and taxes.

All in all, a pretty wide-ranging procurement fraud, covering several relatively common areas of illegal behaviour, adding up to an impressive winner of the Bad Buying Creative Fraud Award.

…..

Not Really Technology Award: Greensill Capital

Not an SCF FinTech, Just a Risky Lender (and Several Very Naughty Boys)

Greensill Capital, the firm built by Aussie farmer’s son Lex Greensill, collapsed in March, and the losses to investors who backed the firm are still unquantified but may run into billions. The UK taxpayer is also on the hook for state-backed loans and perhaps even pension support for steelworkers (because of Greensill’s close links with Liberty Steel).

Greensill presented itself as offering innovative tech-backed supply chain finance (SCF) products, but (to cut a long story short), their business model turned out to involve borrowing money cheaply by presenting the investment as low risk, then actually lending it out in a VERY risky manner.

Ultimately, it was lending money to the Gupta Liberty steel empire based on the “security” of vague future revenue flows that did for Greensill. Some of those revenues were supposedly going to come from firms that weren’t even current customers of Liberty!

This was not “supply chain finance” in the sense that any off us in the supply chain world had ever heard of before. It looked very much like unsecured lending with funds coming from sources (including Credit Suisse-promoted bonds) who were unaware of just how risky that lending really was.  Greensill also talked about being a “fintech” business, which they clearly weren’t, but dropping that bit of bulls**t into the conversation gave the firm more credibility. Their lending was facilitated through other genuine fintech-type platforms such as Taulia.  

Lex Greensill himself leveraged his role as a UK government “Crown Representative”, working to promote SCF within the Cabinet Office, to wheedle his way into winning some work in the public sector. He was supported for frankly incomprehensible reasons by a number of key people, including the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. The various investigations showed that some senior procurement people and politicians were not taken in, including Minister Francis Maude, but Greensill got onto a Crown Commercial Service framework, and won contracts for offering NHS payments to pharmacies as well as “salary forwarding” to some NHS staff.  

Government’s Chief Commercial Officer at the time, Bill Crothers, initially didn’t seem keen but came round to the Greensill cause, and became a director of the firm, no doubt encouraged like ex-Prime Minister David Cameron by the prospects of making millions. Cameron’s behaviour has stained his reputation – such as it was – forever. Having left office, he harassed everyone he knew in government to promote Greensill’s cause, right through to 2020 when he tried to gain advantage for Greensill under pandemic financing and lending schemes.

We can’t call what happened “fraud” yet, although investigations that might lead to criminal charges are continuing. It is hard to believe that nothing criminal went on, but we will see. However, whatever it was, it fully deserves the Bad Buying Not Really Technology Award based on the scale, innovative nature and continuing implications of Greensill’s actions.  Indeed, if we had nominated an overall winner this year, I suspect Greensill would have won that ultimate accolade…

Happy New Year and let’s hope for less Bad Buying in 2022!

Two more awards today.

UK (Private sector): The UK Water Industry

Not spending enough money (and failed regulation…)

There were a number of long-running procurement-related scandals which continued to rumble on this year, notably the investigations into the Grenfell tower disaster, and the Horizon Post Office scandal.  Both showed appalling behaviour from various suppliers along with failures on the buy-side. Procurement weakness allowed supplier failings to translate into tragic consequences for those affected by the Grenfell fire and those who lost their livelihoods or wrongly went to prison in the case of the Fujitsu / Post Office Horizon IT system. The judges were also tempted to look into the causes behind the global shortage of chips (electronic, not potato), which affected supply of all sorts of items. But they decided that was all a bit too complicated …

So the multiple winners here are the private water and sewage companies. Research by the Financial Times showed that they slashed investment in critical infrastructure by up to a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised.  That reduction in spending came about despite bills going up 31% in real terms – and some £372 billion has been paid out in dividend payments to parent companies and investors. In 2019, only 16 per cent of England’s rivers and seas met the minimum “good or better” ecological status as defined by the EU’s water framework directive. And 2021 saw reports of raw sewage being regularly discharged straight into rivers and the sea whenever it rained hard. My friends who swim in the Thames thought it was algae coating their skin after their river swimming this autumn … 

Of course, this is a regulated industry so we might call it a joint public / private sector award as the government must share the blame for inadequate regulation and what is in effect a market failure. But this is a case where the “bad buying” failure is in not spending enough (rather than overspending). So we will hold our proverbial noses whilst awarding the water industry the Bad Buying UK (Private Sector) Award.

…….

UK (Public sector): Covid Test and Trace Programme

Incompetence in Managing Consultants

The judging panel had a difficult task in this category, with continued overspend on HS2 (and every other rail project), and more revelations about PPE expenditure. Social care is experiencing a sort of market failure, whilst the MOD Ajax armoured vehicles programme was particularly unfortunate not to win the prize given the various elements of that particular fiasco. And the panel argued long and hard about whether the crazy regulatory structure of the energy market which ended up with dozens of firms going bust might count as “bad buying”.

But ultimately, for a clear waste of money through inappropriate procurement and even worse ongoing contract management, the UK pandemic Test and Trace programme was finally declared the narrow winner.  

The programme kicked off during the first wave of Covid in early 2021, and we could understand why initially consulting resource was needed to make things happen quickly. But for 18 months now, various officials in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have promised that the number and cost of consultants was going to be dramatically reduced. But nothing appears to have happened, as hundreds of millions have been spent with the big consulting firms.

David Williams, then the DHSC second permanent secretary, assured Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee back in January that there was a plan in place to “reduce markedly” the number of consultants from Deloitte who were working on the programme. (Williams has since become permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence – that bodes well for sorting out waste in that area!)  But at the time he claimed there were “around 900” staff from the consultancy working on Test and Trace, who he expected were costing £1,000 a day each – meaning the daily total was close to £1 million just for one firm.  Some Deloitte staff were charged at a rate of over £6 a day too.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA which now runs NHS Test and Trace, said in July 2021 that there was a ‘very detailed ramp-down plan’ to reduce the number of contractors. But 1,230 consultants were still employed at the end of October, figures showed. At the sort of rates paid, that was still costing over £1.3 million A DAY.

This is not “consulting” in the true sense of the word. It is “warm reasonably intelligent bodies sitting at desks / at home on their laptops”. It is staff substitution, not consulting, and those people should not be costing £1000+ a day.

DHSC has had 18 months to actually recruit people on fixed term contracts at maybe £50K a year to replace the £250K a year consultants.  The profit for Deloitte partners (and indeed those of other firms who have been involved on the programme) is enormous, all based on undeserved income from the public purse. And it is not even as if the programme has been a great success … but let’s not get into that.

Despite the tough competition we are confident that this case is a worthy winner as it represents a basic old-fashioned lack of concern for spending public money with consultants – something that is far too common, unfortunately.  So the Test and Trace programme wins the Bad Buying UK (Public Sector) Award.

Look out for the final two awards tomorrow!

I got a phone call a couple of weeks ago from a BBC Northern Ireland producer, who wanted to interview me for a programme about procurement of PPE (personal protective equipment) during the pandemic first wave last year.

I did a few smilar media appearances last year on Zoom, so said “yes – when do you want to do it”?

“When can you come into London so we can film you?”, he asked.

So not Zoom, but real life! Which was how I came to be filmed in a Pall Mall hotel meeting room – just me and a charming cameraman, whose wife works in procurement, strangely enough.  The interviewer asked the questions remotely via Facetime on a phone perched on a tripod a few feet in front of me which was rather strange.  I spent 45 minutes on the interview and another 15 being filmed “reading papers”… all for about one minute of screen time! And why they have to show those close-ups where you can verify my need for a better skin-care regime, I really don’t know.

The end result was a very good Spotlight documentary, broadcast first in Northern Ireland but shown on the BBC News Channel several times this week. It is the story of how a confectionery firm in Antrim, Clandeboye Agencies, landed orders worth over £100 million for PPE, and the confusion over whether the products supplied were actually fit for purpose. Were they “gowns” or “aprons”? And what did that  mean for the safety of those using the equipment?  

The journalists also tracked down some of the stock that was never used in the NHS and found it could be bought now for a fraction of the price paid originally by the government. It’s well worth 25 minutes of your time, although if you have followed the PPE story there won’t be much to surprise you, I suspect, other than that public availability of stock at cut prices now.

I have written several articles previously about PPE, so I won’t go through all the issues again. I did explain on camera that huge price rises were not unexpected when demand suddenly went up ten-fold or more. But just to re-state the problems, these are the broad topics I would be looking at if I ever do write the Bad Buying Book of PPE!

  1. The NHS stockpile of PPE provided to be unsuitable for Covid, and was very badly managed in terms of stock control, expiry dates, easy accessibility… etc.
  2. The early forecasts for PPE demand proved to be way out, which led to major over-buying – which is why we ended up with containers sitting around for months, suppliers being paid to NOT deliver, stock sold off cheaply, etc.
  3. Whilst the situation was desperately urgent, more attention and effort should have gone into getting the specifications right before hundreds of millions of pounds was wasted on equipment that proved unfit for purpose.
  4. Proper due diligence took a while to set up, so some early contracts went to firms who should not really have been considered as suppliers.
  5. The “VIP route” should have been much more transparent, and firms with an existing track record of PPE supply should have gone to the top of the list for consideration rather than those recommended by an MP, senior  civil servant etc.
  6. Buyers should have insisted on getting a breakdown of costs to avoid profiteering by middlemen and agents.

Anyway, you can see the programme here on iPlayer for the next 11 months.

So the eastern arm of the high-speed rail programme HS2 from London up to Leeds, has been cancelled. Well, what a surprise. The biggest money pit dug in the UK for a long, long time has become too deep even for this spendthrift government. As Construction News reported,

“The eastern leg of HS2 phase 2b between Birmingham and Leeds has been scrapped by the government as part of its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the Midlands and the North. The cost-cutting on HS2, which the government estimates will save around £18bn, was unveiled … by transport secretary Grant Shapps alongside pledges to upgrade local and intercity rail links in the regions. The £96bn investment package will cut journey times between many towns and cities, and increase the capacity of the rail network, Shapps said”.

I wrote here and here about HS2, with some thoughts on why huge programmes fail and how it sometimes seems that everyone involved with such programmes has an incentive to mislead the public – and often some of the decision makers – about the true costs. 

Most of the press commentary about the recent decision has focused on the “betrayal” of the north of England and what this means to the Prime Ministers supposed “levelling up” agenda, which is aimed at spreading wealth from the south of England to the north.  But surely a bigger question is whether the rest of HS2 should be going ahead, given the costs and a business case that look weaker and weaker as time goes by.  I pointed out a year ago that the initial business case was, in effect, a fiddle or a fix, designed to justify the programme.  As I said then:

“The business case for HS2 was always highly questionable. It relied on ascribing a value to the extra 20 minutes or so the passengers would have because of their somewhat faster journey from London to Birmingham. It assumed that the journey time was “wasted” from a benefit point of view, which is clearly not true (have they never heard of smartphones or laptops?), and also assumed that passengers wouldn’t use the extra 20 minutes by staying in bed a little longer!”

Now the new issue of Private Eye magazine has pointed out that the initial business case also made it clear that the whole programme would only offer value for money if it was all completed. The full benefits of “Northern Powerhouse Rail”, some of which is still going ahead, were also conditional on the HS2 leg to Leeds.

Private Eye also points out that economic growth in the UK has been slower than the figures used in the 2015 business case, which reduces the return further. And of course, the pandemic has driven a major drop in rail usage, and it is far from clear at the moment whether pre-Covid traffic levels will return, given what appears to be a seismic change in working habits and the growth of hybrid home /office working patterns. 

So we are now in the crazy situation where the government is subsidising existing rail companies and lines by billons a year because of the lower levels of usage, whilst spending £60+ billion on the western arm of HS2. Think what that money could do to improve the creaking railway system in the north of England, the trans-Pennine routes, commuter services into Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds, getting Sunderland connected properly… I am not anti-rail, I should say, but I do not believe HS2 is a good use of public money in such huge quantities.

I also have doubts about the HS2 programme’s ability to avoid Bad Buying in terms of how it spends money with suppliers, but that’s another issue altogether!

In the current issue of Private Eye magazine  – only on sale for another few days so hurry if you want to buy it – there is a special 8 page supplement titled “Profits of Doom”, covering the “bad buying” that went on in UK government around the pandemic, principally PPE (personal protective equipment), but also test kits and the track and trace programme.

Several procurement leaders get a mention, including Gareth Rhys Williams, Government’s Chief Commercial Officer, and Steve Oldfield and Ed James at the Department of Health.  I suspect there are others who actually had more to do with the PPE procurement waste but have escaped that attention …

If you have followed these stories in the media and on this website to some extent, much of the Private Eye report won’t be new to you.  But putting it all together does increase the sense of anger that most of us will feel about the vast sums of money extracted from the British taxpayer by certain firms and individuals, in return for very little effort. According to the magazine, one firm, Primer Design Ltd, went from a profit of £1.3m a year before Covid to making £178.2 million in the first Covid period.

Individuals did well too. Andrew Mills, who had been an adviser to government himself, made £32.4 million for doing very little as a middleman for Ayanda Capital, whose bosses also made tens of millions on PPE supply. Even the consulting firms raked in the cash working on various covid related tasks including the pretty useless track and trace programme, with Deloitte partners making record earnings of around £1 million each last year.

It is clear that cost really didn’t matter when the PPE shortage was at its worst last year, and to some extent that is understandable.  There is still some mystery about the demand forecasts that led to chronic over-ordering; that factor alone cost the taxpayer billions, but there has been little real insight into what went wrong there.

But why the procurement teams didn’t at least try and examine the margins made by the middlemen and agents, I don’t know. If the buyers had insisted on seeing a price breakdown, or set a maximum mark-up over factory gate prices, would Andrew Mills and others really have walked away from the deal?  They won the contracts in the first place because of their political connections that got them onto the “VIP route”, which gave priority to their supply proposals, so it is hard to see that they could have instantly taken their offer to another country.

Instead, they were allowed to make tens or hundreds of millions in profit by exploiting the naivety of the procurement operation, which seemed to focus almost entirely on just buying as much stuff as possible. Then we have the Randox contracts for test kits and analysis, where the picture is even murkier. Member of Parliament Owen Patterson was paid as an adviser by that diagnostics firm, and records of calls between him, the firm and health Minister Lord Bethell, have been “lost” apparently.  Randox was given £600 million worth of contracts without any tendering or competitive process. And it won a testing contract worth £133m, just days before government officials confirmed it did not actually have enough equipment to deliver the work, according to documents now released.

It would be good to think that some of those who profited from the pandemic and in effect took advantage of the taxpayer might lose friends because of their actions. But the culture in the financial world and “the city” is such that I suspect they will be celebrated as great examples of entrepreneurial spirit, exploiting a situation (and their connections) cleverly to make money.

Even if there wasn’t overt brown-paper-envelopes-type corruption here (or none that has been discovered yet, at least), sometimes it is just very easy to hate capitalism!

How do you go about incentivising suppliers within a contract to perform in the manner you REALLY want them to?

The complications tend to come in contracts for services, rather than goods. Where you can write a specification that clearly defines the item you are buying, then it is enough “incentivisation” usually to say “supply that precise thing and you will get paid”.

But if you are buying a service, particular a more complex service, such as consultancy, outsourced customer handling, software development, or even facilities management, then making sure the supplier acts in the way you really want them to can be challenging.

An example of this has been much discussed in recent weeks in the UK media.  Our GPs, the “family doctors” who are the first line of contact for most medical problems, moved most of their consultations online when the pandemic struck last year. Now they are being criticised for not getting back to in-person appointments quickly enough, and generally for making it difficult for patients to get appointments at all. But GPs are actually private contractors. Many people in the UK see them as part of the National Health Service, which they are operationally, but they actually work for the NHS under what is in effect a contract for services. They are suppliers.

In reality, there are a number of factors driving this appointments problem. This is a very stressful job, and the proportion of women working as GPs has grown dramatically in recent years. So for both their own health and for work-life balance reasons, more GPs are working part-time, so the capacity of the system is arguably not high enough. There is also a backlog of medical problems that weren’t sorted out during the worst of the pandemic, so there is more demand on the system than ever.

But certain newspapers, and the Minister for Health, Sajid Javid, have decided that there is capital to be made by blaming the doctors themselves for being “lazy”.  Aside from the issue of whether the buyer (Javid) should be having a go at a “key supplier” (the doctors) in public, there is much  discussion around how GPs are paid and incentivised. 

An article in the Daily Mail recently suggested that instead of being paid in the main based on how many people are on the GP’s “list”, they should be paid based on how many appointments they actually carry out.

It may be time to move from a bulk payment per patient to a per appointment funding structure, to encourage doctors to actually see patients as quickly as possible”.  That was the quote from Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute (the free-market-promoting thinktank),  who from his LinkedIn profile would seem to be a very bright young man. Yet it doesn’t take too long to see the incentivisation flaw in his argument.

A per-appointment system would encourage less scrupulous doctors to pack in as many appointments as possible. Currently most people only get ten minutes or so with the GP, but that could be squeezed further if some doctors were tempted by a direct increase in revenue from that approach. And for doctors with a conscience, who want to take the time necessary to get a diagnosis right, you are placing their ethics into direct conflict with their bank balance.

Now that’s not to say that the payment by list size is necessarily the best option., and there is no simple, magic solution here.  Arriving at an appropriate mechanism is challenging; for instance, the same size list of patients in socially and economically deprived Blackpool might generate a lot more work than the same in Wokingham. And of course throughput has to be balanced with the rigour of the doctor’s work. But we might imagine a set of KPIs (key performance indicators) which might be combined in some way to drive GP payments.

In any case, this all reinforces that getting incentivisation right is tricky. That applies whether we are talking about an outsourced customer service call centre, roads maintenance contracts (see examples of both of these services going wrong in the Bad Buying book) or getting our front-line doctors to contribute in the best possible way to the health of the nation. So beware simplistic solutions.

There was a cri de coeur from Matthew Parris in  today’s Times newspaper (behind the paywall). He was concerned about the British public’s expectations that the government could sort out all and any of our problems. As he put it;

“Even we lucky British will sometimes encounter shortages and gluts. Is it now the government’s business to smooth them out for us? Increasingly, that is the assumption”.

We’ve seen in recent weeks issues with supply of food to supermarkets (although I can’t say I have noticed much of a problem), stories that Nando’s were short of chicken, then we’ve had genuine shortages of carbon dioxide and a petrol “crisis” caused mainly by politicians telling us there wasn’t a crisis. Parris sees this expectation that the government should solve every problem as a slide leftwards politically. He is a believer in the free market, which is why he originally became a Conservative supporter and MP, and thinks the government should stand back more often.

I believed in the free market, in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, and the quiet, patient but unstoppable power of price in regulating demand and stimulating supply. I believed that if you’re short of applicants for a job you raise the wage. I laughed at government attempts to control prices as a way of keeping down inflation. I knew you couldn’t buck the market”.

I also share his fondness for free markets. However, the problem is that very few markets are truly “free” in the theoretical sense and certainly few function perfectly. Indeed, that is something most procurement people understand from their own bitter experience. For instance, a perfect free market is open to new entrants, and indeed it is easy for existing players to withdraw. It is unregulated except perhaps for fundamental criminal laws (don’t poison people with your beer or sell cars with no brakes).

But for a number of reasons, it feels like fewer and fewer markets really are anywhere near perfect or free. Take the shortage of lorry drivers – something that is hitting the UK particularly badly, but is an issue elsewhere in Europe too. (It does appear however that Brexit is a contributing factor in the UK, according to the industry expert view).

In a truly free market, thousands of people would be rushing to change jobs to earn the £50K per year plus now on offer for driving trucks. But we insist that new drivers (not unreasonably, I should say) go through extensive testing. That is a time and cost related barrier to entry. We have restricted free movement of people into the UK post Brexit, closing another “free market” option.

In other areas, the government has attempted to create dynamic new markets, but it is not as easy as it seems. Take the domestic energy market. We have seen plenty of new market entrants, but with increasing regulation and price control from the government, it has moved far away from the vision of a truly free market. That whole market is now unwinding and collapsing with the increase in wholesale gas prices. (There is also what feels like an increasing tendency for con artists and scammers to get involved in these quasi-markets – maybe that is a topic for another day, but it feels like the UK is becoming steadily more susceptible to business-related fraud and corruption).

And during the pandemic, the government “interference” in how markets operate was even more extensive. The government stopped tests for new lorry drivers because of social distancing rules, for instance. We might understand why that was the case, but it has been a contributing factor towards the current shortage.

Indeed, coming back to Parris and his complaint, the government has “interfered” so much in our lives during the pandemic, I think increasingly people do feel that the government can and should sort out every problem.  Those in charge told us where we could go for a walk and who we could visit, so why not expect that they can guarantee my Nando’s will be available and make sure there are enough lorry drivers to go round? That might not be an appropriate view, but I suspect it is quite prevalent.

What does all this mean for procurement professionals? Aside from many now operating in fire-fighting mode, simply focusing on securing immediate supply into their own organisations, it points out the importance of truly understanding how your own key supply markets work. Are they genuinely free markets that respond quickly to changes in demand, with new entrants, innovation and dynamism? Or are they controlled or restricted in some way – by government or by other barriers to entry (it wasn’t regulation that led to Facebook’s domination of its market, for instance).  

The pandemic shock has highlighted vulnerabilities in supply chains and exposed markets that already had inherent issues and weaknesses. So to avoid “bad buying”, understanding how your key markets really operate must be a priority.

Last year, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) hit the headlines when shortages threatened the lives of health workers and patients in the early months of the pandemic. That demonstrated how a spend category that was traditionally seen as low risk and suitable for “leverage” type approaches to procurement could become highly strategic, critical and even politically sensitive.

We now have another example with a similar change in perception for what seems like a pretty standard item, a simple ”commodity” even.  GPs (“family doctors”) in the UK National Health Service have been told to stop performing most blood tests until mid-September. Hospitals have also been instructed to cut their number of tests by 25%, all due to a shortage of blood tubes (sometimes known as sample bottles).

NHS England wrote to doctors and hospital leaders, telling them that “the supply position remains constrained and is forecasted to become even more constrained over the coming weeks.  While it is anticipated that the position will improve from the middle of September, overall supply is likely to remain challenging for a significant period.”  That is thought to mean months rather than weeks.

The shortage has arisen apparently because Becton Dickinson (BD), the main supplier of blood collection tubes to the health service, just has not been able to keep up with demand.

This is obviously a hugely concerning issue. Blood tests help determine whether patients have particular conditions or illnesses, provide warning signs and monitor overall health. A reduction in capacity here will almost certainly cost lives. 

So what has caused this problem? There appears to have been an increase in demand, perhaps because of the pent-up health issues now being exposed as people go back to doctors surgeries after avoiding them for many months because of COVID. But the company also said it was facing issues transporting the tubes, for example, challenges at the UK border. That has been picked up by some as an example of post-Brexit supply chain issues around customs, tariffs and so on, issues that are affecting many businesses.

But with our Bad Buying perspective, might this also be a case where the procurement strategy is partly to blame for the problem?  Is BD the only supplier of this product?  That seems unlikely, but it is possible that the NHS has taken an aggregation and leverage approach to this item, as it did to many others, including PPE prior to the pandemic. Is BD a sole supplier because they offered a great deal for the whole NHS volume?

Maybe that is not the case, but you do wonder why other suppliers are not being mentioned, although the NHS has said new providers will come on stream soon. But it may be this is another example of over-aggregation creating unhealthy dependence on one supplier.  It doesn’t even always add to better prices, too. Here is a short extract from Bad Buying (the book) where I talk about the risks of supplier dependence and how it is created by poorly considered procurement approaches.

“Buyers aggressively aggregate their own spend, believing they’ll get better deals if they offer bigger contracts – until in some industries only the largest can meet your needs. Buyers might insist that suppliers must service every office or factory across the US, or Europe. Smaller firms and start-ups, which often offer real innovation, flexibility and service, are shut out of the market.

Buyers assume economies of scale, that ‘bigger is better ‘and bigger deals mean lower prices. But that is not necessarily true; the price curve may flatten after a certain volume, with further increases in volume not generating any further price reduction. There are even cases where you see dis-economies of scale– the buyer pays more as the they spend more…”

In this case, it would be fascinating to know just how the NHS has ended up with shortages of such a fundamental item. But in the meantime, just hope that you don’t need a blood test anytime soon!

I still don’t know if there will be a “Bad Buying Returns” book or perhaps an updated edition of the first volume, but the stories keep on coming in terms of case studies for potential inclusion.  The latest at least has an element of humour, which is a change from most of the pandemic-related bad buying we’ve seen over the last 18 months. It is, of course, the “Marble Arch Mound”.

Westminster council commissioned a mound or small hill to be built in London, at Marble Arch. It was to be a tourist and visitor attraction, designed to get people back into the West End of London and to shop in Oxford Street. The temporary 25-metre-high artificial hill, built on the corner of Oxford Street and Hyde Park, was supposed to be aesthetically beautiful and a great viewing point over London.  

The marketing drawings showed quite sizeable trees and shrubs covering its contours. However, when it opened a couple of weeks ago, there was dismay from visitors, who were annoyed at paying at least £4.50 for what one described as “London’s worst attraction”.  Instead of beautiful greenery, early visitors were greeted with sights of rubble, building works and scaffolding from the viewing platform, which was covered in brown turf. A tidy row of wheelie bins was arranged at its foot.

This episode seems to illustrate several of the drivers of “bad buying” that I discuss in the book. There is the tendency for politicians to like “vanity projects” – spending money where a business case in weak, but the politicians feel that they are creating a “legacy” or something that will make them more popular. Our Prime Minister Boris Johnson is of course a past exponent of this, with his ridiculous Garden Bridge (let’s blame actress Joanna Lumley as well for that), which wasted over £50 million and also saw some truly appalling procurement. There was also the costly Thames Cable Car and his crackpot ideas for a floating airport and a tunnel (or was it a bridge?) between Scotland and Ireland. 

In the case of the Mound, there seems to have been an arrogant attitude from a few council leaders who pushed the scheme through. There was no real consultation, and it was apparently not voted on by all councillors. That attitude again is often a precursor to bad decisions – witness my local council wasting millions on badly timed property purchases in Camberley, with decisions made by a small cabal without involving most of the elected representatives, let alone taxpayers.

But there also seems to have been a failure in more prosaic terms here around the specifications for the Mound, and tying down the cost of the construction. In May, the council reported the total build and operating costs would be £3.3m and £2m would be recouped largely through ticket sales to visitors. But now, costs are expected to be at least £6m, and it is not clear as yet exactly why that is the case. Amid all the light-hearted comments about the fiasco, the council’s deputy leader, Melvyn Caplan, has resigned and the political ramifications are growing.

However, the Mound is now free to visit, and ironically it has become busy as visitors flock to see if it is really as bad as the reports suggest … and let’s face it, Madame Tussauds still rakes in the cash so perhaps there is hope for the Mound after all.