Reports in the Guardian last week suggested that Michelle Mone, business woman and member of the British House of Lords, benefited directly from PPE contracts which the government awarded during the pandemic.

Mone and her husband had denied that they gained personally from £200 million worth of PPE contracts, following disclosures that they lobbied politicians including Michael Gove for PPE Medpro to be awarded the business. That enabled the firm to secure a place on the government’s “VIP lane”, which prioritised certain companies that were offering to supply PPE. Many of the firms in that group were recommended by politicians, although others came via recommendations from civil servants, advisers or other prominent people.

Mone’s lawyer last year said she “did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”.  But already there was evidence that she was involved, and now leaked documents produced by the bank HSBC appear to show that her husband, Douglas Barrowman, was paid at least £65 million from PPE Medpro. Funds were then distributed via offshore accounts and trusts, and some £29 million of that ended up in a trust benefitting Mone and her children.

Separately, PPE Medpro is being investigated for fraud by the National Crime Agency. It is not clear if that is linked to the government’s dispute with the firm over the quality of gowns supplied as part of the contract, which did not meet quality standards (according to the NHS).

Leaving aside the specifics on Mone and Barrowman, who appear to encapsulate the moral bankruptcy of many of the PPE “middlemen” and agents who exploited the pandemic to make excess profit, the case does highlight again some of the weaknesses in PPE procurement. It is easy to be wise after the event of course, but with billions made by some very dodgy people, it is not unreasonable to ask what went wrong. Here are a few of the key issues – we have previously discussed much of this of course!

  1. The PPE procurement team was slow to ensure that the specifications provided to suppliers were exactly what NHS users needed. That meant it was not the suppliers’ fault that some unusable goods in the early days of Covid did meet those specifications. In other cases, it may be that the supplier was at fault, but the waters are muddy. And whilst time was of the essence, surely samples of items should have been provided before huge consignments were shipped and paid for. It also took a while to get basic supplier due diligence in place.
  • The idea of having some sort of prioritised potential supplier system to evaluate offers was in itself reasonable, given so many firms were approaching the buyers. But it should have been a totally transparent process, with the “rules” in the public domain, and it should not have been based primarily on “knowing the right people”.  A simple pre-qualification process with a handful of questions would have worked better than what was put in place. I am also amazed that no senior civil servant spotted that the focus on MPs’ mates would look unfair or worse once exposed. The “Private Eye” test (how will this look on the front page of the Eye / Guardian / FT)  should have highlighted the issue here.
  • Again, whilst acknowledging the pressure to secure supply was incredible, I don’t understand why buyers didn’t delve a little deeper into the cost structures of the suppliers and establish how much margin was being made by those intermediaries. That would have enabled at least some attempt at negotiations to moderate the margins. The lack of curiosity there fuels the conspiracy theories that the buy-side was complicit in helping firms and individuals to rip off the public purse. Just saying “oh, we paid the market price” – which was in effect itself determined by whatever price was offered by those exploitative firms – was not good enough really.

Finally, I have still seen no real explanation of why the estimates of PPE requirements early on were so far out and led to the huge over-ordering of stock, with at least £4 billion worth wasted. That is still costing us now, as PPE is sold off cheaply, or even burnt, whilst we still pay millions for storage. It may be that there was nothing malicious or incompetent behind that, but it would be good to understand how we went so wrong. After all, that was a clear error, one that cost the taxpayer billions.

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”.  

Two fraud cases in a row here … but a new (for me) angle today.

Procurement related fraud and corruption has interested me for many years, long before I started collecting case studies specifically to include in my Bad Buying book. So it is unusual to see a new type of fraud, but I came across a US case recently that was somewhat different to any I‘ve seen before.

At the heart of it, the scam is that an organisation ends up paying for goods that are not really needed (or maybe aren’t even delivered).  An internal budget holder creating their own company, setting it up as a supplier, then creating and authorising invoices and payments to themselves is the typical case. But here, it was more complex, as the fraud was against the US publicly-funded Medicare system.

At a federal court in Brooklyn Elemer Raffai, an orthopedic surgeon, was charged last month with health care fraud in connection with a $10 million scheme. He allegedly submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicare Part D plans. Raffai was arrested and was due to make his initial court appearance in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.

“In exchange for kickbacks from telemedicine companies, Dr. Raffai allegedly submitted millions of dollars in false and fraudulent claims to Medicare on behalf of beneficiaries without even examining them or based on conversations on the phone that lasted less than three minutes,” stated United States Attorney (Breon) Peace.

Dr. Raffai purported to practice “telemedicine” (phone or Zoom I assume) with the AffordADoc Network and other telemedicine companies. He was paid approximately $25 or $30 per patient consultation.  Between July 2016 and June 2017, he allegedly signed prescriptions and order forms for medical equipment, including orthotic braces, that were not medically necessary, simply based on a short phone call. Some $10 million in false and fraudulent claims were made to Medicare for that equipment and Medicare paid more than $4 million on those claims.

Presumably the “patients” were in on the alledged scam as well, and were recompensed for making the call to the doctor and playing their role in the process. And (again presumably) it was the manufacturers or sales agents for this equipment who were the masterminds behind it all. They received funding from Medicare for goods that either weren’t needed by the “patients”, or perhaps that equipment was never actually supplied. That isn’t clear from the information made public so far.  We might also hope that those firms have been or will be charged with fraud, as well as the doctor.

This type of fraud where different parties are colluding can be very difficult to detect – think of the famous Sainsburys potato example, which went on for years and was only detected in the end by the supplier’s external auditor. The buyer worked with a potato supplier that charged the firm over the odds, which funded bribes to the buyer. But one positive for those trying to fight fraud is that the more people are involved, the more likely it is that someone involved will “crack” and expose what is going on.  I wonder if that is what happened in this Medicare case, where many people must have known what was happening?

Another positive is that technology will increasingly be called into play to fight fraud. AI (artificial intelligence) can look at huge amounts of data, and perhaps in this case could have worked out that this doctor had a prescribing pattern that was out of line with his contemporaries.  I know organisations are using tools to examine payment records and look for anomalies; for instance, someone who always places orders with a value just below the threshold for further approvals.

Anyway, this is an interesting case and we will keep an eye on it to see what happens to Doctor Raffai.

It’s usually  a sign of desperation in terms of the public finances (in the UK anyway)  when politicians suddenly start talking about “efficiency savings”. It’s even more serious when they start building them into future forecasts of public expenditure before identifying where the “savings” might actually come from.  

There is nothing wrong with looking for savings from procurement or internal efficiencies, an any good manager should be doing so continuously. But if you really wanted to run such a proper programme across the UK government, you would need to plan and think carefully about how you structure and resource that, which areas you will focus on and so on.  I was involved in the Gershon efficiency programme way back in the mid-noughties and whilst it probably did not deliver everything it wanted to, it was a serious attempt to address difficult issues such as cross-departmental collaboration and a structured category management approach to central government buying.

Last week, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a new efficiency drive. “The drive will be spearheaded by a new Chancellor-chaired “Efficiency and Value for Money Committee” that will cut £5.5 billion worth of waste – with savings used to fund vital public services”.

Set up a committee – I’ve always found that’s a great way of making savings! But when you look closely at the announcement, it seems to apply mainly to the NHS and the arm’s length bodies (“Quangos”).  They “will be expected to save at least £800m from their budgets”.  The Arm’s Length Body Review will see savings supposedly come from “better use of property, reduced reliance on consultants, increased digitisation and greater use of shared services, as well as the use of benchmarking to drive efficiencies”.

What has the last government been doing all these years to leave these savings on the table?!  It’s a good job the Conservatives are now in power to sort it out!  Hang on a minute – they’ve been in office for over a decade now. It’s taken quite a while to realise that issues such as “reliance on consultants” are costing the taxpayer a fortune.  

Meanwhile, the “£4.75 billion worth of savings agreed with the Department of Health and Social Care will come into effect financial year 2022/23.”  So together that gives us £5.5 billion in “savings”, which more than covers the £5.5 billion target previously mentioned. So are central departments not covered by this? It’s not clear.  We may come back to where exactly these huge health savings are going to come from.

The other element of the announcement is this. “The Treasury will also launch a new Innovation Challenge to crowdsource ideas from civil servants on how government can reduce waste and improve public services, with winners selected this Summer and best ideas becoming Government policy…. A 2015 Innovation Challenge received 22,000 responses with 16 measures implemented”.

I predict there will be many ideas from civil servants, and the most common will be “stop Ministers coming up with stupid f***ng policy ideas that will never work and cost a fortune”.

Consider great historical examples such as NPfIT in the NHS, ID Cards, privatisation of probation, FireControl, Universal Credit, most PFI programmes, the aircraft carrier programmes … etc.  Maybe it would also help if we didn’t give PPE contracts to friends of friends and then waste billions because of over-buying and not checking the specification.

But back to the new “efficiency programme”. We’ll know quickly if it really means anything when we see if and how it is to be resourced, and how often this committee is going to meet. The methodology of measuring “savings” is also key. I’m sure the DHSC will find a way of showing Treasury that it made the “savings”, yet somehow it managed to overspend its budget at the same time… and yes, I am deeply cynical about all this!

The vexed question of conflict of interest in public sector procurement came up the other day with reports that a senior executive in the National Health Service digital team had been doing rather well out of that organisation.

The HSJ reported that NHS Digital (NHSD) paid over £3 million to a small technology firm, Axiologik, one of whose owners was working as a Board-level interim director in the organisation.

The money was paid to Yorkshire-based tech support company Axiologik, whose co-founder and director Ben Davison also served as NHS Digital’s executive director of product delivery – for which he received annual pay of £260,000, working as a contractor, in 2020-21.”

A number of issues arise from the HSJ investigation. Firstly, it appears that no other candidates were considered for the position when Davison was appointed. That seems odd, to say the least.

Then nine months after his appointment, Axiologik was appointed to provide programme management support for the Covid booking service, followed by more work (according to HSJ)  “to lead NHSD’s “tech and data workstream” which involved “portfolio level executive leadership across citizen-facing digital services” run by NHSD such as the NHS App, NHS.uk website and 111 Online”.

In the current year, turnover of the firm is set to grow from £6.5 million to £15m, not surprisingly. NHSD say that they put measures in place to avoid conflicts of interest – Davison had no involvement in the procurement process, or delegated authority for contracting or spend approvals. But as a top-level interim executive, how could he hold a supplier to account in any meaningful way if he was also a director of that supplying firm?  

Another issue arose because Davison was paid in the £260,000 – £265,000 band in 2020-21 according to the NHSD accounts, making him the highest paid person in the NHS.  But there is more. The Treasury then got involved because his appointment broke the rules on getting approval for contractors who work for more than six months!  (The engagement of two other NHSX contractors also broke the rules). That led to Treasury withholding £645,000 of allocated funding to NHSD because they have been such naughty boys and girls.

But perhaps the most important question is this. Was Axiologik appointed after a competitive process?  The HSJ does not make that clear – presumably because they do not know – although they report that the firm was appointed from the government’s G-Cloud framework.

There are many frameworks used in the public sector covering a wide range of goods and services. They enable users to bypass much of the formal “legal” public procurement process and can be very useful when used properly, retaining the ability to achieve value for money but simplifying the process. The Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Services (CCS), which runs G-Cloud, is the biggest manager and promoter of such contracts.

But too often, frameworks are being used today to award contracts without any real competitive process, leading to potential shortcomings in terms of value or even corruption.  In most cases, for example, users should (legally) run some sort of competitive process between at least some of the firms on any given framework to select the supplier that can provide best value. But in practice, users at times just pick their favourite and justify it on spurious grounds that “they are clearly the best…”

Some framework managers don’t really have an interest in whether the process is run properly either. They make their money as a percentage of the spend through their frameworks paid by the supplier, so CCS for instance is targeted on increasing its “sales”. If they put controls on usage, or police this issue of further competition too strongly, then users might just switch to another framework and CCS loses income. Indeed, the funding of CCS and other major framework managers leads to a range of perverse incentives in terms of ultimate taxpayer value – something I’ve been saying for many years.

Anyway, to be fair, we don’t know whether Axiologik was engaged without a competitive process, so maybe all this is irrelevant here. But in any case, someone at NHSD was very naïve about conflict of interest issues, and very ignorant when it comes to Treasury rules on interims. So definitely a contender for the next volume of Bad Buying!

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.

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.

(Two posts in a row about blood – that’s a bit weird)!

Earlier this month, Elizabeth Holmes went on trial in San Jose, California, accused of six counts of fraud.  That relates to the blood-testing firm she founded and ran, Theranos, which was claimed to use unique technology to perform a range of tests with just a small sample of blood. The claims were later revealed to be largely nonsense and in some cases the results might even have proved misleading or dangerous to the user. When one of the Theranos laboratories was inspected in Newark, California, in November 2015, the inspectors concluded that “the deficient practices of the laboratory pose immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.”

The cautionary tale has been turned into a best-selling, award-winning and definitive book, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and is going to be the subject of a film with Jennifer Lawrence playing Holmes.  But in real life, it seems that her defence during the trial may claim she was under the influence of her older and more experienced business partner and one-time boyfriend, Ramesh Balwani.  They may also claim that she really did believe in the product and it was others within the firm who misled her about the actual way it worked (or didn’t).

Although some experts warned from the early days of Theranos that there were questions to be answered about the product, Theranos raised hundreds of millions in investment from famous people such as Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch.  Perhaps they were dazzled by this confident, smart young blonde woman, who seemed to be particularly effective at persuading older men to stump up large investments!

But as well as the investment aspect to the story, there was also a Bad Buying link to the events. Here is how I described it in my book (“Bad Buying – How organizations waste billions through failure, fraud and f*ck-ups)”.

“Buying failure comes into this because the pharmacy chain Walgreens spent $140 million with Theranos over seven years, hosting around forty blood-testing centres in their stores. They got very little benefit from that and recovered some $30 million after a lawsuit and settlement following the eventual disclosure of the issues. Amazingly, as Bad Blood reports, Walgreens’s own laboratory consultant, Kevin Hunter, had seen early on that something wasn’t right with Theranos. But the executive in charge of the programme at Walgreens said that the firm should pursue the pilot because of the risk that CVS, their big competitor, would beat them to a Theranos deal.

Again, buyers wanted to believe that something was real, even in the face of mounting evidence that it wasn’t. This relates back to comments around believing the supplier– those earlier examples weren’t demonstrating fraudulent behaviour, but the principle is similar. It is easy for a naive or gullible buyer to be sucked into believing what the supplier wants them to believe.

Suppliers will take advantage of this tendency – whether it is the relatively innocent ‘Yes, we can install this new IT system in six months’ or the more dangerous ‘This equipment will find hidden bombs’. And FOMO – the fear of missing out to the competition – is something else suppliers will use, and that can lead to bad decisions. It’s not just physical goods, either. The top consulting firm selling its latest ‘strategy toolkit’ will mention that the potential client’s biggest rival is also very interested”.

So the message is – treat claims made by suppliers about their products with caution, maybe even with a touch of cynicism if they seem unique, outlandish or truly earth-shattering! And don’t let FOMO take you into the realms of Bad Buying.

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!