The BBC ran a story this week about the UK’s spend on PPE during the pandemic. I was contacted by the journalist, Jon Ironmonger, and did a video interview at the BBC, although I believe it has only appeared (a short excerpt anyway) on a BBC East programme, which I haven’t seen! The report centred on Full Support Healthcare, who are based in Wellingborough in that region.

But there were articles on the main BBC website, quoting my remarks. The journalist actually wanted me to be balanced and give an “expert” perspective on what happened with PPE procurement.  I tried to explain the problems when demand for anything suddenly rockets, but I was critical of a number of aspects of the programme, all of which I have written about over the years since 2020.

One continuing mystery is why the initial forecast of demand turned out to be so far out – about twice what in retrospect would have been reasonable. That was what triggered the “panic buying” in May 2020, so arguably it was the single biggest cause of the subsequent disastrous waste of money (over £10 billion).  The forecast led to some incorrect specifications being issued in haste, use of very strange suppliers (not all of whom were properly vetted, despite the re-writing of history that some politicians have attempted), the lack of anything much in the way of cost / price analysis or negotiation with suppliers, and the infamous “VIP Lane” for suppliers with a contact in government.  

The latest article from Ironmonger focuses on the stock management aspect. It appears that some £1.4 billion of aprons, masks and googles just from Full Support have been incinerated, recycled or written off. A general rule of thumb is that around twice as much PPE was contracted for as was needed, as it turned out. So given the total bought from that firm was £1.8 billion, it is not clear why such a high percentage of their product has been wasted.

The Department of Health and Social Care disputes that loss number, saying some money has been recouped by recycling, but the Department basically refused to engage with Ironmonger while he pursued this story, ignoring his requests, and has failed to provide clear evidence of what has happened to stock or financial details.

Full Support was an established supplier of PPE before the pandemic, unlike many of the cowboys who got in on the game once panic set in. Sarah Stoute of the firm told the BBC the shipping containers that transported her company’s PPE were unloaded “various times up to 207 days post-arrival”. She said the masks were “perishable goods and required to be kept cool and dry” and “not intended to be stored for a prolonged period in a shipping container, yard or field”.

The port of Felixstowe became jammed with PPE containers in November 2020, and they were moved to various airfields, other ports and available land. After some stock was sold off to other dodgy people for disposal, it was found dumped on a site in a New Forest.

Here is is one of the many articles I have written on this topic. This one gives a good summary of what I still feel are the key issues or questions around what happened. It’s right that we remember the desperate situation that faced us back in early 2020, and both users and buyers of PPE were in a particular crisis situation. But I still wonder if we have really learnt lessons from what certainly wasn’t one of UK public procurement’s finest hours.

As we’re into the election period in the UK, the Labour Party is promising capital investment (in roads for instance) but saying that much of the money will apparently come from the private sector. This has brought back memories of the previous “Private Finance Initiative”, which was actually invented by the conservatives under John Major in the early 1990s but was enthusiastically embraced by Labour after 1997 when Tony Blair won the election.

I was procurement director at the Department for Work and Pensions for two and a half years, 1995-7, serving when Labour came into power, and was involved in some large PFI projects, including new construction programmes and some IT initiatives. Then in the noughties, I was consulting in government and held a couple of interim commercial director posts where PFI or similar initiatives were relevant too, including the ID Card programme.

So speaking from the inside, I can say that there were a number of positive aspects to PFI, despite later criticism. Having a single entity responsible for the financing, construction and then maintenance of a new hospital for instance created a clarity of purpose and an interest in whole-life costs. However, there were some less positive aspects which Labour must avoid if it is to make a success of PFI Mark 2 (or Mark 3, or wherever we are up to now).

In the past, some dubious financial engineering was definitely encouraged to get projects through the business case process. The comparisons were generally made in terms of the basic cost of the building in the case of construction projects. So PFI projects were often compared using “cost per square metre” metric, as the ongoing PFI charges overt the contract period were often based on that as the charging “unit”. That figure included the cost of capital, the construction cost and probably the basic infrastructure maintenance. It would then be looked it against the “public sector comparator”, i.e. what it would cost the government to provide the same facilities.

I actually sat in meetings where the PFI adviser (more on that later) said to a supplier, “the public sector comparator is marginally lower than your figure – you need to improve that”. Now that sounds like good negotiation, but the twist was this. The contract usually included a whole list of ongoing activities where the buyer would be locked into using the PFI supplier. And these were rarely included in that value for money comparison. So suppliers were encouraged to make their money on these extras, often around ongoing supply of goods or services, and keep their base charges low to get through the business case process.

The other way of making the contract attractive for the provider was to make it longer. Hence ridiculous 60 year contract periods, with guaranteed price increases of course, which again circumvented the business case issue as the comparisons would rarely look that far into the future.

So this is why seemingly trivial services or one-off type activities ended up costing schools and hospitals a fortune.  “Another school had to pay £302 for a socket, five times the cost of the equipment it wanted to plug in”, as the Daily Telegraph said in one report. This wasn’t an accident or bad negotiation – this was because the payment mechanisms were constructed deliberately to make the basic occupation charges look lower, with the provider making their money from these ‘extras’.

That would improve the apparent business case; then later on the occupier gets hit with unexpectedly high charges. It represented a conspiracy really between all the parties to make these projects happen, and arguably was a failure of finance and procurement across many organisations while these deals were being done; or at least a failure to stand up to pressure from other quarters and point out loudly the problems that were being stored up for the future.  I will take some credit though – one of the (probably few) good things I did in my DSS job was refuse to allow catering, cleaning and security to be included in one large property PFI deal we did, because I was concerned about future lock in for decades. That probably saved millions.

The other very dodgy aspect of “old PFI” was the role of Partnerships UK (PUK) in all this.  From 2000 onwards, Treasury promoted the use of PUK’s services – at extortionate consulting rates – for advice to public sector clients on particularly the commercial and financial elements of PFI deals. If you didn’t pay your three grand a day for a PUK adviser, you wouldn’t get your project approved by Treasury, was the feeling.

Yet PUK was 49% government owned, and 51% owned by the banks! That was a clear conflict of interest there in terms of PUK’s enthusiasm for PFI deals which made huge profits for those same banks. And the politicians – and even some top civil servants – were probably looking forward to their nice non-exec roles with the same organisations once they retired.

So Labour needs to take care here if it wants to bring back PFI-type ideas. It needs considerable commercial and procurement expertise on the government side of the table – and it must make sure the people who are supposedly representing the taxpayer in those discussion really do have our interests at heart, and are not feathering their own nests.   

After writing last week about competence in UK local government, as if by magic, a case of alleged fraud in a council very close to my home popped into view the other day.

Now several of my local councils haven’t been doing very well in recent years in terms of looking after taxpayers money. The Tory council in Surrey Heath, where I live, now ousted by the LibDems, bought well over £100 million worth of commercial property in Camberley right at the top of the market, and is now sitting on a loss in asset value of £50 million or so. Woking council, a few miles to the east, has basically gone bust after property deals and investments that make Surrey Heath’s look minor.

And now Guildford, to the south-east, has published a report into what is an alleged fraud and is at best a prime example of Bad Buying in its housing department. Two employees have been suspended and five agency workers had their contracts terminated.

The report to the Council by Jeanette McGarry of SOLACE, (the society of local government CEOs), is good but focused more on the governance issues rather than the procurement events. That may be because the matter is with the police now and an arrest was made in March, so precise details of the core issues may be sub judice.

But basically, a contractor working on the council’s housing stock was paid far more than the original contract value (which is not disputed) and also there was a possibility (as the report says),

  1. That work may have been ordered when it wasn’t necessary;
  2. That work may have been ordered, invoiced and paid for when it was not completed at all or;
  3. Not to a satisfactory standard;
  4. That duplicate invoices may have been submitted and paid for the same work;
  5. That works may have been ordered and undertaken that were not the responsibility of the Council.

Back in 2022, the council agreed to spend £24.5 to update its housing stock. But there were no in-house surveyors and doesn’t appear to have been much in the way of internal procurement either, as “Several agency staff were appointed and were able to appoint housing repair and maintenance contractors”.

A three-year contract for £2.4 million was agreed for EICR (electrical installation condition reports) testing and inspection to Seville Developments Ltd, “under direct award” via a framework. This was apparently achieved under the Council’s procurement process and “was found to be compliant”. I’d like to know more about how a direct award of that size could be acceptable, and if there was no competition within the framework, but the report does not go into that.

But the council realised in 2023 that expenditure had reached £18.9 million with Seville, with no authorisation or action taken such as contract variation. At this time, “the Corporate Procurement Team was staffed solely by temporary officers and there is evidence that an officer identified the unauthorised expenditure and raised this with the Housing client but did not escalate the matter”.  

Whistleblowing concerns were raised in 2023, and the staff suspensions and terminations took place in September 23, and in March 24 “An arrest was made by the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit”.

If we look at the anti-fraud measures outlined in my Bad Buying book, we can see a number of flaws in the Guildford process. There will I suspect be questions around the lack of transparency in supplier selection. Then we have the issues on signing off work – was that power too concentrated? Perhaps the biggest question is how on earth invoices that exceeded the contract value by £16 million got signed off and paid – that entire budget control process at Guildford must have been absolutely pathetic.

But an interesting point which is not one I really covered in the book is this dependence on contractors and temporary staff. To have a procurement team that is entirely “temporary officers” brings obvious dangers. It is not that contractors are necessarily crooks, but they cannot have the knowledge of the organisation and the internal relationships that are vital when things go wrong or strange events occur.

I also don’t understand why if Guildford was so short of staff, they didn’t call on Orbis for help. Orbis is the shared service organisation, hosted by Surrey County Council, that runs procurement for Surrey, East Sussex, and Brighton councils, and does a pretty good job. Surely they could have assisted Guildford if the council there couldn’t find its own procurement staff?

Anyway, another case study for “Bad Buying 2”!

As the results come in from local elections in England, it is clear that basically the country just wants the Conservative Party to go, the sooner the better. I don’t think there is huge enthusiasm for anyone else but most of the public are just sick of the infighting, incompetence and idiocy of the ruling party in recent years.

However, will changing our local councils make things better? A very interesting article in The Times   looked at data provided by a new agency, the Office for Local Government (Oflog). Ministers set up Oflog last summer to provide “authoritative and accessible” performance data to support improvement in local government.

The data looks at the efficiency and effectiveness of local councils across 27 categories in five main areas: waste management, corporate and finance, adult social care, planning and roads. It revealed for example that some councils have recycling rates that are twice as good as others and that some authorities are failing to process half of planning applications on time, while others are not late on a single one. The figures also show the extent to which many councils are struggling with debts, with six local authorities already having declared themselves bankrupt since 2021. That is certainly in part becuase of lower funding from the centre of government, but competence (or lack of) seems to come into play too in most cases.

The Times accessed all the data to look at variations, which are huge and pretty inexplicable other than by sheer management competence. For example, in the year to September 2022, Hinckley & Bosworth borough council in the East Midlands completed less than half of household planning applications on time. But Tamworth borough council, just 30 miles away, was not late on any.  

The Times also came up with league tables to see if there was any political correlation with performance. Nottingham (Labour controlled) was the worst performing authority. Torridge district council, on the north Devon coast, came top of the table – it is run by independent councillors.

But the results actually supported a theory I’ve held for years, suggesting it is not that the Conservatives (Tories) are generically better or worse than Labour in terms of competence (with the Lib Dems in the picture too in a smaller way). Of the ten worst-performing councils, six are controlled by Labour. Of the ten best-performing councils, six are in coalition or are run by independents, while the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives run two each.  Eight of the ten worst-performing county councils or rural unitary authorities are controlled by the Conservatives – while seven of the best-performing ten are in coalition or run by independents.

So what it does seem to show is that the worst-performing councils are almost always in areas, towns or cities where there has been a long-term dominant party, whether that is Labour or Tory. Conversely, the best-performing councils are generally more contested, so independents rule the roost, or no single party has a clear majority, or power has changed hands over recent years.

That stands to reason really. If there is a long-term dominant party, there is more scope for arrogance to creep into decision making, or fraud and corruption to spring up, and there is less scrutiny of decisions. “Bad buying”, whether it is just wasting money on frivolous or unnecessary spending, or more serious fraudulent or corrupt expenditure, is more likely where power is well entrenched. Take fraud for example. You are less likely to bribe a councillor, or to stand as a councillor yourself so you can influence planning decisions for nefarious purposes, if it is not clear who will be in charge after the next election.

Similarly, some of the arrogance we have seen in councils such as Woking, where the dominant Tory council invested hundreds of millions in unwise property deals, or in Nottingham, where the council (Labour in power since 1991, 50 of 55 councillors) thought it could run an energy firm better than the professionals, came about I’d suggest in part at least because the councillors thought they were unchallengeable and had complete power.  My own council, Surrey Heath, has also lost money – not as much as Woking though – on property deals put in place by a very arrogant Tory leadership. But last year for the first time ever the Lib Dems took power here.  

However, the correlation is far from perfect. Thurrock, where the council is now suing “businessman” Liam Kavanagh, who allegedly cheated the council out of over £100 million with dodgy solar farm investment schemes (hopefully the ex-finance head at the council will end up in court too), has actually had a few changes of council over the years.

But Liverpool is another example where single-party dominance led to a culture of corruption. Even after commissioners came in to run the City in 2021, the job description I saw for the Head of Procurement role still did not suggest a real appetite to put in place all the controls and governance you would want to see as a taxpayer!

Anyway, all this suggests that if your main interest as a voter is in the effective running of local services, rather than any deep political beliefs, you should aim to keep your local council and councillors on their toes by creating a competitive environment. How you can best do that will vary by area and even local electoral ward. But that seems the best strategy if you want your money to be used honestly and well.

Bad buying obviously covers every potentially sector and category, but I have had a long interest in professional services spend and procurement for many years, including as co-author of “Buying Professional Services”, my first published book.

A couple of recent stories highlighted that although most of the people working in that sector are highly educated and intelligent, they can still behave just as badly and even illegally as any petty criminal.

The first story was about a survey of lawyers run by the “rolllonfriday” website, anonymous of course given that 35.5% of the respondents admitted that at some point they have been guilty of adding time that hadn’t been incurred to their time sheets (which then means the invoices to clients are also inappropriately inflated). As the report said,

Thirteen percent admitted they did it regularly, 12.6% confessed to being “occasionally” culpable, while around 10% said it was something they had done, albeit “rarely”. 

Well, that probably won’t come as any surprise to most of us, but it was interesting to see our suspicions as cynical buyers confirmed. It reinforces the view that whenever possible, engaging professional service providers on some sort of fixed fee, outcome, output or success based basis is better than a simple “time and materials “ hourly or daily rate.

However, it can be difficult in the world of law, because we often don’t know just how much work will arise from a particular assignment, particularly if other parties are involved (litigation for instance). So it is hard for the parties to arrive at a sensible view of risk, which you need in order to agree a fair fixed price.

You should always look for where you can define some sort of clear work package and agree a price for that, but one thing buyers can also do is challenge their provider if bills look “padded”.  Many people feel nervous about actually digging into a statement and saying to their lawyer, “so did you really spend 30 minutes on that two-line email”?

Now they are unlikely to immediately back down and reduce that bill, but next time, they might just think “perhaps I’ll just put 20 minutes for this email” because they know you will challenge. So don’t be scared to be a nuisance and analyse billing carefully.

The second piece of news was even more shocking. Consulting and auditing firm KPMG was fined  in  the Netherlands for endemic cheating around professional examinations taken by their staff. As the Times reported, “The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board in the United States found that between 2017 and 2022 hundreds of KPMG workers in the Netherlands, including senior partners and managers, had shared questions and answers with one another. This included for exams that they had to sit to test their understanding of professional ethics”.

Cheating on an ethics test! You have to laugh really. But I don’t understand why it is the US regulator doing the fining though rather than the Dutch equivalent.  

To make it worse, KPMG lied to the investigators, saying they knew nothing at senior levels about the answer sharing – but it turned out two board members had indulged in these activities themselves! A $150,000 fine was also imposed on Marc Hogeboom, who used to run KPMG’s Dutch audit division, and he was banned for life from working for any firm that audits American public companies.

These people are auditing public companies and giving investors confidence (or otherwise) in those businesses – so having the right skills and training is critical beyond just KPMG’s own operations. The cheating means there may be incompetent people doing important work, which is not a good thought, and of course it means buyers have paid for people whose qualifications (which largely determine the level of fee paid) were bogus. Maybe some big clients should sue the firm now.

It seems that it isn’t the first time this has happened and KPMG is not the only firm that has transgressed. Last week the American regulator also fined Deloitte’s businesses in the Philippines and Indonesia $1 million each for answer-sharing on professional tests. And two years ago EY was fined $100 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, because a “significant number” of its American auditors cheated on the ethics component of their Certified Public Accountant exams.

The lack of ethics and morals of those involved is quite shocking for supposed “professionals”. Whilst the latest fine was substantial, it does not seem to be enough really to reflect the seriousness of the crime. I think it would have been appropriate to ban KPMG from all audit work in the Netherlands for a few years. I also think maybe a few jail sentences for the most senior people involved might have made others sit up and take notice.

So the advice to procurement people is this. As with the lawyers, don’t necessarily believe everything your consultants or auditors tell you, or everything they put on the invoice, just because you think they are ethical and trustworthy professionals. Not all seem to fit that description.

(Pic; A&E on a Saturday night)

Incentivisation is a fascinating topic. In a business context, for example in terms of incentivising the right behaviour by suppliers, it can require knowledge of psychology, contract law, finance, economics, and operations management. Most of us in procurement will have seen examples of it going wrong too – indeed, I dedicated a whole chapter in the Bad Buying book to dodgy incentivisation that drove unexpected or simply bad supplier performance.

In the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the way “the centre” (usually the Department of Health or NHS England) incentivises hospitals and other Trusts that deliver services is very similar to a commercial buyer/supplier relationship. Basically, the centre gives money to Trusts and they agree to aim for certain performance levels.

Now I’ve looked up the cvs of  Sarah-Jane Marsh, National Director of Integrated Urgent and Emergency Care and Deputy Chief Operating Officer, NHS England, and Julian Kelly, Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer, NHS England. To be honest, there is nothing in them to suggest that these two are stupid. And yet they have launched one of the daftest and most inappropriate incentivisation-related initiatives I’ve ever seen.

It is in effect a “competition” through which Trusts can receive additional funding for capital expenditure in 2024/5. This is what they say in their letter to Trusts this week.

We recently met with ICB and acute trust leaders to discuss how we best work together to meet the challenge of delivering the agreed target of 76% A&E 4-hour performance during March 2024 so that more patients are seen, treated and discharged in a timely way….

In addition we are now announcing three other routes through which trusts will be eligible for additional capital funding in 2024/25:

  1. The 10 trusts delivering the highest level of 4-hour performance (that means seeing people within 4 hours of their arrival at the accident and emergency department) during March will each receive £2 million.
  2. The 10 trusts who deliver the greatest percentage point improvement in March (compared to January 2024 performance) will each receive £2 million.
  3. The next 10 trusts who deliver the greatest percentage point improvement in March (compared to January 2024 performance) would each receive £1 million.

(It continues…)

So where do we start with this? As I say, I look on it as a supplier incentivisation exercise, and on those grounds I would immediately point out a few major flaws .

  • It was issued on March 12th, and relates to performance in March. So how can Trusts possibly have time to make any significant or lasting changes to their processes to improve A&E within days?  
  • Shouldn’t capital expenditure be allocated based on where it will get the best return rather than on some sort of “Hunger Games trial by A&E”?  You would put money into a collaborative venture with a supplier based on its potential return, not on some spurious “performance measures”, wouldn’t you?
  • Doesn’t relating much of it it to improvement mean those Trusts that were particularly awful in January have more chance of winning then the consistently good Trusts? That seems unfair.
  • How do you stop “gaming” of the process and the data?  I’d pay a few local layabouts to come into A&E with a “bad finger”, see and discharge then in two minutes, then rinse and repeat until my figures look amazing.
  • Indeed, this could lead to patient care that is driven by finance, not needs. See the easy cases in A&E, not those with their leg hanging off…

This strikes me as politically driven, surely the only explanation as to why Kelly and Marsh would take this deeply flawed step. Ministers desperately want some good news from the NHS now in case there is a Spring election. Officials must have been instructed to do this – that must be it? If not, if this really is an NHSE internal initiative, then the NHS really is in even deeper trouble than we thought.

Congratulations to Shirley Cooper, CIPS Past President, who has become the UK government’s “Crown Representative for small businesses”. In that role, she will represent the interests of smaller firms, particularly in terms of their ability to win government contracts. “She will work with the Cabinet Office’s Small Business Advisory Panel, departments, suppliers and trade bodies to further level the playing field for small businesses, start-ups and social enterprises and ensure they can compete for and win more government contracts” says the announcement.

The government’s policy goal to increase the amount of spend going to SMEs is a long-running failure. I worked with Sally Collier of OGC on the implementation of the first review of small business and government procurement, the Glover review, way back in 2009. We recommended that there should not be a target or targets set for spend with SMEs – we felt targets would distract and take resources away from actually doing real stuff that would help SMEs. But the new coalition government disagreed, so a target of 25% was set, with no real logic behind it.  

It wasn’t hit in the first few years, but ridiculously, the Tories said they would increase the target to 33% in the 2015 election manifesto, purely to say something that sounded good to appeal to the small business lobby. Everyone in public procurement knew it was a ridiculous move. But surprisingly, the Tories won the election and the target was increased. Even the Public Accounts Committee in 2016 concluded “it is not clear how the Government decided on 33% as a target or how achievable it is”. 

The answer to the achievability question is that the target is impossible to hit because a few organisations dominate the overall spend figures – particularly MOD and National Highways (previously the Highway Agency). Because SMEs can’t build aircraft carriers or the M25, even if every other department does really well, the target won’t be achieved because of those big spenders.

So the government decided that the target should include second tier spend, the money big suppliers spend with smaller suppliers of their own. Of course, if you are going to add this in, then following the logic, really you should subtract the money SME first tier suppliers spend themselves with big suppliers! Anyway, many of the large suppliers to government don’t really track their own spend with SMEs. I suspect when government asks its first tier suppliers for the data, many of them just make up the numbers.

So in 2021/22, the total spend with SMEs went down from 26.9% to 26.5%, including that indirect second tier spend. Direct spend went down more dramatically from 14.2% to 12.3%.  But what happened in 2022/23, you say? We don’t know yet. The data tend to come out around 18 months after the end of the period in question, either because it is so difficult to put together or because if you publish it really late, it takes some of the potential political heat out of the report. Maybe both.

The decline may be due in part to another trend that has been reported by the National Audit Office. More spend is not competed these days, with more use of frameworks, direct awards and single supplier contracting. Whilst SMEs are on many frameworks, that mechanism makes it easy for buyers to just choose their favourite (usually large) firm. 

There is talk about how the new Procurement Act will help SMEs, and to be fair, there are a couple of positive factors there. “The Act places a requirement on contracting authorities to assess the particular barriers facing SMEs throughout the entire procurement lifecycle, and to consider what can be done to overcome them”, for instance.  

Tougher “rules” on prime contractors paying sub-contractors could also help if policed. A single registration system for potential suppliers is a good move for everyone (Sally and I suggested that in 2009). But the idea that the greater flexibility for buyers and contracting authorities will suddenly lead to a boom for SMEs is just wishful thinking in my opinion.

There are also a whole range of arguments around whether supporting SMEs is a sensible policy goal at all.  Might it be better to support diverse, minority owned business? Or social enterprises? Or innovative start-ups? Or firms based in deprived areas?  Is simply looking at size a sensible way of targeting assistance?

So really, the role of the SME Crown Rep has historically been as a figurehead to show the government “cares” about SMEs, and get some votes from small firm owners. In fact, big firms have continued to rule the roost in terms of actually winning contracts.  Maybe Cooper can change that – we’ll see, but I wish her luck and hope she can have an impact. It woudl also be interesting to know how she plans to measure her effectiveness.

There was a major announcement this week in UK public sector procurement.  Gareth Rhys Williams (GRW), who has been Chief Commercial Officer for government since 2016 was appointed the new Chair of National Highways, which looks after major roads across the country.

I assume that Rhys Williams will therefore be standing down from his commercial role. I’ll be taking a longer look at his track record shortly, which is mixed. There have undoubtedly been some positives, but the many billions wasted on PPE during the pandemic and the infamous “VIP route” for friends of Ministers will always sit in the other column. On the other hand, I don’t see him getting involved in a business committing a huge (alleged) fraud when he eventually leaves government, unlike his predecessor…

He has also appeared recently in an exciting and inspirational video made by recruitment firm Odgers to promote a current senior vacancy in the government commercial world, the Commercial Director for the Ministry of Justice. OK, the video is not really exciting and inspirational. Rhys Williams comes over as a very decent chap, which I believe he is, but there is not a hint of charisma or energy in his “performance”.  Lucy Harding, the excellent Odgers Partner and interviewer, tries her best but my goodness, it is hard going.

Indeed, my reason for writing this is to say this – the job is more interesting than you might think if you merely watch the video!

The MoJ is a very interesting and complex Department, and the Commercial Director role reflects that. You’ve got the core central department, then related organisations such as the Probation Service, Prison Service and the Legal Aid Agency. I was a Commissioner (a non-exec in effect) for its predecessor, the Legal Services Commission in about 2006-10 and just working out how to manage the £2 billion legal aid spend with the legal “market” is a task that would challenge most CPOs! And it still hasn’t been sorted out from what I can see.

There have been major capital investment construction programmes in the prison sector and the  courts service, some moderately disastrous IT programmes, and probably some better ones we don’t get to hear about, and the famous prisoner tagging scandal, where the then CPO at MoJ and his colleagues put their Sherlock Holmes hats on to investigate a tangled web of dodgy supplier behaviour. (That was one of the most interesting procurement stories I ever reported on in my Spend Matters days).  All in all, it really is a fascinatingly complex Department, and there is as wide a range of procurement tasks and objectives as you will find anywhere.

So if you like a challenge, go for it. You will also be working in areas that really matter to citizens. In my time as a government procurement director, I did find that genuinely satisfying, compared to buying skimmed milk power for Mars or computers for Dun & Bradstreet. You do run the risk of appearing on the front page of the newspapers – which happened to me once – but actually, that just emphasises that you will be doing stuff that matters.

I’m sure Odgers is very open to applicants with different backgrounds, so don’t think that your track record in terms of which sector(s) you have worked in matters. And in the video, GRW talks about progression. Well, there is his job to aspire to, which he doesn’t mention!

Assuming he is going soon, it would be too soon I guess for this new appointee, but that role is a possibility in the future. As GRW does say, there is also the chance to move into a non-commercial operational role in government. A very capable women who worked for me at NatWest in her early career moved into government procurement at a middle management level but ended up in a very senior and high profile line management role in the civil service.

Anyway, you’ve got to get your application in by February 25th, so you haven’t got long…

Incentivisation is a topic that probably isn’t discussed in procurement as often as it should be. I find it fascinating, as it encompasses a mix of finance, economics, contract law, psychology, low cunning…  How we construct contracts, the success measures we set for suppliers, how we reward their good behaviour or performance and punish the opposite – these all feed into how they behave.

Suppliers generally behave rationally given the incentives they are presented with. In the Bad Buying book, there is a whole chapter on the topic, because I found so many interesting case studies about incentives going wrong.

We see another example in a slightly different context in the UK at the moment, where the dental element of the National Health Service has failed in its core objective – to keep the nation’s teeth in good condition. A BBC investigation in 2022 found that nine out of ten dental practices weren’t accepting new NHS patients.  In some regions, that figure was 98%. That has led to more and more patients turning up at hospitals with terrible dental problems that require urgent treatment – which puts more pressure on over-stretched hospitals of course. Tooth decay is the most common reason for hospital admission of young children, shockingly. And 20,000 adults and 60,000 children were hospitalised last year to have teeth extracted under general anaesthetic. 

There are stories of people pulling out their own teeth, or making homemade dentures, fillings and crowns. We seem to have gone back to Victorian times. And it is all because the contract for dentists incentivises the profession in a manner that has led to that situation. The NHS contract does not pay dentists based on their actual effort, and does not allow them to make what they consider a reasonable income. So they have learnt that treating only private patients will reduce their patient numbers, but overall, the dentist will make more money. More and more practices are taking this view, unfortunately, making totally rational decisions.  

Funding for dentistry has been cut under this government. And one of the incentivisation issues is that the dentists’ contract does not always relate the income they make to the amount of work they do. So, simplifying the problem, their pay is broadly based on a fee for each course of treatment they deliver to an individual. So they receive the same amount whether they do one filling for me or six.

There is a vicious circle here – if people can’t find an NHS dentist easily, by the time they do, they probably do need more work doing, so they are even less attractive for the remaining NHS surgeries.  The current contract actually goes back to the days of the last Labour government, but the Tories have done nothing to address this issue in recent years – until now, when they see it becoming a potential election issue this year.

One solution would be to increase the supply of dentists, which in classic economic terms should drive prices down in the market – pushing more back into NHS work perhaps. But the five-year training scheme means this is impossible in the short or medium term. Another possibility would be forcing dentists to do NHS work for a certain number of years after qualifying, given they benefit from the taxpayer subsidising their training. Neither option has been tried.

Last week, the government announced incentives to encourage more dentists to do NHS work, but the profession doesn’t think this will work. We will see. But devising a contract that incentivises the behaviour the government (and the taxpayer) want to see should surely not be impossible.

However, politicians have struggled with contracts and incentivisation for the medical profession for years. I remember the new GP contract for first line “family doctors” that was agreed by the Labour government back in 2004. My friend who was a GP told me that he and his colleagues were astonished how favourable it was to them. When he first read the letter about his new payments and contract, he honestly did not believe it.

Anyway, I am fortunate to still have an NHS dentist, although I’m also fortunate to be able to afford private additional treatment when I need it. But the current situation is a disgrace. When we see people travelling from the UK to the Ukraine – a country at war – to get dental treatment, you know something has gone badly wrong with the UK situation.

Coming back to the Post Office Horizon scandal, last week at the long-running enquiry into the events, Fujitsu finally apologised and owned up to their contribution to the terrible events. The firm has now promised to make substantial contributions to the payments which should go to the affected sub-postmasters shortly, we hope.

As the BBC reported, “The boss of Fujitsu’s European arm says it has “clearly let society down, and the sub-postmasters down” for its role in the Post Office scandal.

Paul Patterson admitted there were “bugs, errors and defects” with the Horizon software “right from the very start”.  Mr Patterson also reiterated the firm’s apology for its part in the scandal.

Some of the Post Office staff involved in prosecuting the sub-postmasters came over at the enquiry as being both stupid and vindictive, enjoying their role as the “bad guys”. Clearly, the Post Office saw a role for nasty, vicious people in this case.

Then, in the Sunday Times today, Robert Colvile has written an excellent article about the history of the Horizon software. I was also surprised and pleased to find that he quoted from my book, Bad Buying, within his article. He reviewed the book (pretty positively) when it came out in 2020.  My quote is nothing to do with Horizon though – Colvile uses another story of mine to demonstrate general issues with contract management in the public sector.

But he makes a connection that I had missed (and I should have spotted). Horizon started with an ICL project, “Pathway”,  working with the then Department of Social Security back in the 1990s to automate benefits payment. I was actually Procurement Director at the DSS for part of the time this pretty lousy programme was running! But I had not realised it morphed into Horizon, and along the way the failing ICL got acquired by Fujitsu.  

When I joined the DSS, in 1995, I was not exactly welcomed by the people running that programme. I was struggling to get any traction with the programme leadership. So I asked my boss whether I should push harder to get involved. “Do you have plenty of other things to do”, he asked me. Yes, I replied, loads of stuff. “In that case, I think I would leave that programme alone”, he advised. He knew it was a dog and was saving me from failure by association.

That was when the Minister Peter Lilley stood up at the Tory Party conference and showed off the “benefits payment card”. It wasn’t real of course – there never was a working benefits payments card. His was mocked up in his hotel suite the night before by his aides, I was told.

I followed the Horizon case from the beginning and I thought I wrote about it on Spend Matters many years ago but I can’t find the article now, so maybe I just thought about covering the case. I do remember my internal debate about whether to include the story in my Bad Buying book, but it was complex, unfinished and subject to ongoing legal action, so I decided not to, unfortunately perhaps. Although I don’t think my book would have had any effect compared to the TV programme.

Let’s just hope now that the compensation gets sorted out quickly for those affected. And I’ll come back to another issue which Colvile comments on, the question of why Fujitsu has continued to win government contracts since the Horizon affair became public. That takes us into some interesting questions about public procurement regulations, so I’ll save that for another day.