The fraud section in my new book was great fun to write. I know you can’t and shouldn’t call fraud “fun” in any sense, but the case studies I researched were interesting, and often quite astonishing.

In one case I saw personally (which I couldn’t mention in any detail in the book) we discovered a fairly senior colleague, who everybody thought was a lovely, capable person, was actually involved in approving six-figure invoices from a fake supplier. The police thought this “firm” was probably linked to the “Russian mafia”, and we only found out about the fraud when the police discovered this gang was receiving large payments from my firm (and told us)!

Anyway, buying-related frauds can involve just internal staff, as in the case of fiddling your expenses or using the company charge card wrongly, or can be purely externally driven, as in the case of many “invoice misdirection” cases, or might involve both internal and external players. That third category is perhaps the most common and includes classic frauds such as overpayments to suppliers or biased supplier selection in return for bribes or inducements to the buyer.

But technology, artificial intelligence in particular, is helping to pick up some frauds through its ability to analyse huge amounts of data and spot trends, patterns, inconsistencies and oddities. I remember a presentation from two or three years back which talked about using AI to search through corporate payments or approvals. The idea was that you might find for instance a budget holder who always submitted an invoice for approval or payment on a Friday afternoon, when it might be scrutinised less carefully! Or someone who always makes purchases with a value of £9,999 if the cut-off for approval is £10K.

But more recently, I learnt of another interesting approach. In this case, the AI focus is on emails and documents that flow within the organisation and to external third parties. It has been developed by a firm called FACT360, which is led by Paddy Lawton, who founded, ran and then sold spend analytics software firm Spend360 to Coupa in 2017. I spoke to Lawton and fellow director Andy Slater to get a quick overview of what they’re up to.

Of their three core products, AI Forensics  is most relevant to buying-related fraud work. It analyses documents and emails and produces a network “map” of who is talking to who within an organisation and across organisational boundaries, including to suppliers, for instance. It generates insights from that communication flows as well as from the content of the messages themselves.

So for example, if you apply the analysis to Enron’s data, before that firm’s crash and disgrace, you can see that one particular person was at the centre of a major web of communication within the firm, even though he wasn’t apparently very senior. It turned out he controlled one of the technology “marketplaces” that enabled Enron to falsely claim to be making money on transactions. This analysis of what FACT360 calls “prestige” can tell you a lot about what is going on within an organisation, and who is really important or powerful. 

“And there are subtle changes in communication behaviour that occur and can be detected when actors plan and engage in covert activity” according to Slater.

One of the interesting corruption cases in my Bad Buying book tells the story of the Sainsbury’s supermarket potato buyer, who conspired over some years with a major supplier to pay over the odds for potatoes in return for bribes. Might Fact360 artificial intelligence have picked this up?  Probably, says Slater. It is likely that emails between the main players would have been more frequent than for other similar suppliers, or show different patterns in terms of timing or even use of language. There might have been more obvious clues in the content too.

Of course, knowing that your email trail could be used in his way might discourage fraudsters from using that medium, but there is always going to be some record of contact, unless the participants are using real secret service tactics! And the beauty of these emerging AI technologies such as FACT360 is that the user doesn’t need to know or define what they are looking for – the system will highlight where it finds potential “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it. 

We’re still at the early stages of understanding just how AI is gong to affect our lives, and it may be that some implications will not be positive for many of us. But using it to detect and deter fraud and corruption in our organisations – and reduce Bad Buying – must be one of the more positive aspects of this fascinating technology.

A ”Ministerial Direction” sounds like a very dry and boring aspect of civil service bureaucracy, but that is far from the case. It happens when a government Minister in the UK (an elected politician) insists that their most senior civil servant (the “Perm Sec”) takes an action that the civil servant believes is against the principles of good value for the taxpayer.

Or, as the Institute of Government puts it, “Ministerial directions are formal instructions from ministers telling their department to proceed with a spending proposal, despite an objection from their permanent secretary”.

They are unusual; through the nineties and noughties, a couple a year was the average. There were more around the banking crisis, and we have seen a not unexpected flood of directions in recent months around Covid-related issues. But often, they are not really reflecting a genuine disagreement between the Minister and the mandarin. It is more that the spending can’t definitely be seen as good value, so the permanent secretary has to seek the direction to protect themselves, even if they are wholeheartedly in agreement with the Minister in terms of the actual action.

Much of the Covid spending in areas such as the furlough scheme for instance may prove to be poor value ultimately, and cannot be clearly justified upfront; but I suspect civil servants were right behind the Chancellor and fully supportive of the actions he took.

However, very occasionally you get a direction which reflects a real disagreement, where the Perm Sec is basically saying “I think this is a waste of money and I am doing it because you are forcing me to, you idiot”. Put in nicer words of course. And one such case came to light this week, relating to the UK investment in proposed purchase of OneWeb, a (bankrupt) start-up company whose ambition is to provide global broadband. $500m in equity investment is being considered to co-finance the purchase of OneWeb from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Perm Sec at the Business Department, Sam Beckett, says in her letter to Alok Sharma, the Minister, that while in one scenario “we could get a 20 per cent return, the central case is marginal and there are significant downside risks, including that venture capital investments of this sort can fail, with the consequence that all the value of the equity can be lost”.

There is more in terms of the issues, and Beckett does recognise that this could prove to be an opportunity for the UK, but she feels this would be an unusual investment for a public body, and you have to wonder why it would be attractive for the UK government if it is not to other more experienced investors!

Is this Bad Buying though? Well, you could argue that we won’t know that until we see if OneWeb succeeds or fails. But actually, good decision making is NOT really related to outcomes.  If I make the decision to stand out on the golf course in a thunderstorm with my umbrella up, and I stay dry and don’t get hit by lightning, that does not make it a good decision. It was a bad decision, because based on the facts available at the time it was made, it was the wrong choice (assuming that staying alive is high on my priority list).  You might argue it was successful in terms of outcome, but it wasn’t right at the key moment.

Sharma’s reply says that “I have been informed that even with substantial haircuts to OneWeb’s base case financial projections the investment would have a positive return”. But other experts have suggested that the chances of success here are pretty low. One attraction of the investment is to provide an alternative space system for GPS services to the EU’s Galileo system (the UK is leaving the EU of course). But some believe the OneWeb satellites are not fit for that purpose (follow the link for more techie debate!)

The Guardian talked to Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, who said “the fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites.” (This from Forbes is a pretty balanced view of the technology issues if you want to get into more detailed pros and cons).

That Bowen comment sounds like “getting the specification wrong”, which is literally chapter one in my new book, Bad Buying, out in October.  A good spec as any procurement professional knows is an essential starting point to a successful contract.  So, whilst I don’t understand all the aspects of this, it looks like this is the wrong decision based on risk and opportunity.

It may of course turn out to be a successful decision in terms of outcome – but that still won’t mean it was the right decision, if the facts at this stage suggest a high probability that the UK taxpayer will lose out. And on that basis, we nominate it indeed as an example of Bad Buying.