(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.

On ITV this week, there has been a dramatisation of the Post Office Horizon scandal – “Mr Bates versus the Post Office”. It has got very good reviews but in all honesty was hard to watch. Toby Jones was brilliant as usual but it was tough even as a veiwer as innocent sub-postmasters were sent to prison with their lives ruined because of the evil (and I don’t use that word lightly) behaviour of senior staff at the Post Office and Fujitsu.  There is also a documentary in ITV which I haven’t watched yet but will.

I wrote about this almost three years ago – the article is below. It all still applies. But what has become more obvious as the investigation into Horizon continues is that the guilty people in those two organisations were motivated by in a sense relatively minor considerations. It wasn’t exactly life and death for them.

They wanted to protect their bonuses, they didn’t want to make their own jobs a  little more difficult, or admit that they might have made some errors. More junior staff just didn’t want to make a fuss, I suspect. Frankly, if they had come clean and said “look, the Fujitsu system is flawed, so maybe it is not the sub-postmasters fault”, then it would not really have been that big a deal. But out of greed, laziness and apathy, they were happy to see other lives destroyed.

They should be ashamed of themselves and I am still expecting that at some point, Fujitsu as well as the Post Office is going to be on the hook for a lot of money.  The firm certainly should be held to account for their role in this. Anyway, here is my original article.  

—————

Many of the Bad Buying stories featured here or in my book have an element of levity to them. Some are decidedly humorous even. But sometimes there is a case where it is impossible to feel anything other than horror, anger and amazement at the behaviour of the parties involved.

The case of the Post Office, their postmasters and the Fujitsu Horizon IT system is a case in point. Last month, 39 people had their criminal convictions quashed in the High Court, the latest in a series of legal cases which have finally ended up clearing these individuals and exposing the appalling actions of Fujitsu and the Post Office.

Without going through all the details, the Horizon system appeared to show discrepancies in the finances of Post Office branches. That was blamed on the people running those branches – they were accused of stealing money or at best mismanaging post office funds. Many of those accused dipped into their own pockets to make up the supposed shortfalls. Eventually, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of post office managers for theft – many went to prison. Some were ostracised by friends and neighbours; at least one committed suicide.

And all the way through this the Post Office and Fujitsu insisted that the Horizon system could not be wrong.  But eventually, after investigations and court actions, it became clear that the system was flawed and could well make the errors that led to the numbers not adding up. Even then the Post Office keep fighting for years, putting the postmasters through more pain.

There is a chapter in my book which is all about “believing the supplier”, and how Bad Buying can result from exactly that. That seems to have been one problem here. The Post Office initially at least believed Fujitsu when the supplier said the system was foolproof. No doubt there were careers and sales bonuses on the line for senior Fujitsu staff. Then when the integrity of the technology was called into doubt, we saw greed, fear, arrogance and stupidity from Post Office management, who refused to admit they might have been wrong. Instead, they continued to harass and prosecute innocent people, failing to take responsibility until the very end. 

So Bad Buying on the Post Office side, a poor product from Fujitsu and morally bankrupt behaviour from many of those involved on both sides of the supplier/buyer relationship. Fujitsu witnesses were also made to look stupid in court as they defended their system. Indeed, as Computer Weekly reported, after a 2019 hearing, “The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has referred information to the police relating to a High Court Judge’s concerns about the accuracy of evidence given by Fujitsu staff in criminal trials”.

The least the firm – along with the Post Office itself – can do now is offer a large sum of money to compensate those affected. (Fujitsu has continued to win huge government contracts, by the way). There may be charges of “malicious prosecutions” to be brought against Post Office executives too.

Well done to Alan Bates, the postmaster who initially took on the Post Office,  Computer Weekly and Tony Collins, the first to pursue the technology aspect of the story, and to Private Eye magazine which regularly investigated and reported on the whole affair over the years. It’s a lot more than simply bad buying and the story of another dodgy IT system of course – and it all adds up to one of the most distressing stories about corporate behaviour that I’ve heard in a long time.

Over the holiday period, we heard a lot more about the case of Medpro, the firm that is being taken to court by the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care over the supply of PPE, gowns in particular, which allegedly turned out to be unfit for purpose. The beneficiaries of this, the high profile Michelle Mone, a member of the House of Lords, and her husband Doug Barrowman, produced a documentary arguing their side of the case, and gave an interview on the BBC. This came after the couple had originally denied publicly that Medpro was anything to do with them, with Mone lying to the press and then getting lawyers to issue threatening letters to various publications.

The general response to all this new self-generated publicity was not very favourable for the couple. The interview was called a “car crash” and was likened to the Duke of York’s famous “I was at Pizza Hut and I don’t sweat” interview with Emily Maitlis in 2019. There are some questions though which still need answering on the government’s side of the story.

  • Why is this the only legal case that the government appears to be pursuing? There have definitely been other examples of quality issues, and cases of firms that look at least as dodgy as Medpro winning major PPE contracts. Is there a logic to this or has the government chosen to pursue Medpro because of Mone’s profile, know there would be more publicity given her involvement and that would show the authorities were taking action?
  • Mone claims that she has an email from an official on the PPE team saying, “the gowns have been approved by technical”.  But that seems to be pre-delivery so the approval was before anyone had seen the actual delivered product, which seems odd. Maybe there were samples? But the gowns were apparently inspected by Uniserve, the logistics provider appointed by the government, from July 2020 in China.  And £122 million was paid out in the summer of 2020 for the gowns, which would usually suggest the buyer is content with what has been delivered. 
  • The government says that random testing in April 2022 found that 54 of the 60 randomly selected Medpro gowns weren’t sterile. But that is almost two years after delivery. Even if those tests were accurate, Medpro lawyers may argue that the gowns might have become unsterile in the intervening almost two years, perhaps because of sub-optimal storage conditions?
  • As a buyer, if I have inspected the goods, told the supplier they meet my specification, and handed over the payment as per the contract, then it is pretty unusual, and very difficult to go back a year or two later and say, “hang on a minute, I’ve had another look and I don’t like that stuff I bought from you after all”. In my experience, the supplier would be likely either to laugh or (if they valued my business) say something vaguely sympathetic such as, “Peter, you said it was fine – you must appreciate we can’t really do anything at this stage, terribly sorry”.

However, the fact that Mone lied about her and Barrowman’s involvement and personal gains from the deal is a major issue working against them. There is also the question of alleged bribery. This has been part of the investigation, but there has been no hint as to who it was that Medpro might have  bribed. Their political contacts? PPE procurement people? Other officials?  Flows of money are usually relatively easy to check, unless it is literally £50 notes in a brown envelope, so that’s still an  interesting unanswered question.

In any case, this is likely to be a big story through 2024, not least because Labour will emphasise “Tory sleaze” when it comes to the UK election. Labour has also promised to appoint a “covid corruption commissioner” to look into PPE contracts, so this story will no doubt run and run.

The UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a report last week titled “Competition in Public Procurement”.  It’s a shame that the report came out so close to Christmas and in the middle of Gaza, the Covid inquiry, Conservative Party meltdown and general office party debauchery. That meant it got less publicity than it should have, because it contains some important analysis and recommendations. It is also very relevant because 2024 is going to be the most important year for public procurement in ages, with new regulations and (probably) a new government too.

The PAC usually takes reports from the National Audit Office as their starting point and this is no exception. NAO published “Competition in public procurement – lessons learned” in August and we covered it here. But this PAC report does pick up on some other issues, such as the need to transition to the new procurement regulations in October 2024.

We are concerned that the government may not have sufficiently considered the time, money, and resources required to provide the commercial capabilities to successfully implement the Procurement Act 2023”, says the PAC.

But the heart of the report questions (as NAO did) whether the UK government is getting value for money (VFM) from procurement spend, in particular by using competition effectively.  One of the core issues here is the lack of good data around public procurement which means “government is unable to evaluate competitive trends, understand how effectively markets are open to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and other companies outside government’s strategic suppliers, or set out clear directions and guidance for contracting authorities”.

That is a fair comment, and it appears that there is less competition in public procurement than there was a few years ago, which is a worry. But I do struggle a bit with the concept that better data will allow you to judge VFM. All of us who have worked in procurement know how difficult it is to absolutely KNOW that the contract or deal we have done is the best we could have achieved or even that it is genuinely good VFM. More data in itself does not necessarily help in that.

What you can do is look at the inputs into procurement activity as a proxy for getting the right outputs. That is why aspects such as having the right processes, policies, systems, trained and capable people, strong competition and so on are so important. We can make some assumptions that if you get all that right, you probably will get good value out of the other end.

On that note, the report picks up on the growth in use of frameworks in recent years. Now frameworks do have a valid role to play, but as the PAC says, “the Government Commercial Function has not provided sufficient guidance to address the potential risks to competitive benefits”.  Used wrongly, frameworks can contribute to closed or competitive markets, and provide a route for buyers to simply choose their favoured suppliers without real competition. That may be done for different reasons.

  1. “Reasonably good” reasons – “we’re in a real hurry and I know this firm can meet our needs”
  2. “Poor reasons – “We’re short-staffed, I just don’t have the resource to run a proper competition”
  3. Or REALLY bad reasons “I’ve been unofficially promised a job with this software firm / consultancy when I leave the civil service so it’s worth my while keeping them happy now”.

The PAC does make the fundamental mistake of bleating on about SMEs (small firms). It really is about time we had a proper, rigorous review of the idea that supporting SMEs is the right policy. Why not minority owned firms, or social enterprises and charities, or innovative start-ups, or local firms? The supporting SME policy has in any case failed to deliver against its objectives for a decade now, so for goodness sake, let’s take a proper look at it.

If Labour does win the election next year, there are radical steps it could take and a review of the SME policy would be one. But abolishing Crown Commercial Services would be another. CCS has many successes and positives, but it does inevitably support the idea of central contracts and frameworks, many of which are fundamentally anti-competitive. Then all the little buyers around the country are encouraged to use them, because they don’t have the skills or time to do procurement properly themselves.

The PAC report says this. “While we acknowledge that government has made progress to professionalise the commercial function at the centre, we are concerned that it has not sufficiently prioritised the need to develop that expertise across government, to ensure the successful implementation of the Procurement Act”.

I think that is a fair point. If Labour is serious about devolution, then it will be interesting to see if that strategic thrust is applied to procurement as well as to other policies and approaches. If so, Labour will need to spread the expertise that has been increasingly concentrated in Cabinet Office, break up large national frameworks, drive more competition, encourage a wider range of firms into the public sector supply base, and get more procurement expertise to the front line.  Will that happen? I have my doubts, but we’ll see.

Anyway, the PAC report is worth 20 minutes of your time over the festive period. Enjoy… and happy Christmas! 

(Peter is sitting at his computer, shopping on Amazon. The CEO, Shirley, enters his office).

Hi Peter, how’s that big project going?  I’m pleased to see that you’re taking personal responsibility for it, as our Head of Procurement. It’s an important project for us.

  • Thanks Shirley, yes, I’m on top of it I think.

So the CFO told me that we’ve started making payments to the service provider?

  • Yes, indeed. We paid them around £140 million last year.

OK, so what are they delivering now? How’s it going?

  • Well, nothing yet, that was just to get them on board really, get their co-operation, and help them get set up, you know what I mean.

Not sure I do really … so when do we expect to actually start getting some services from them? Soon I hope.

  • Well, we don’t know to be honest. I mean, they’ve pushed back on the specification in one area. Apparently we wanted them to do something that might be outside international law. So we’ve still debating that.

But we won’t spend any more until this is sorted?

  • Well actually, there was another £100 million we paid in April. Sorry, didn’t I mention that before?  

So that’s £240 million and nothing to show for it. Are you are absolutely sure they will actually deliver the services?

  • Well no, we might still change our minds. Or they might raise more issues. Or that legal issue could get in the way. But don’t worry, we’ve agreed we’ll only pay another £50 million next year. So that’s good news…

Well, thanks for explaining. I’ve got something for you (she hands Peter an envelope).

It’s your P45. £290 million, for nothing. It’s a disgrace and frankly – you’re useless.  Security will escort you out.

Yes, it is spot the analogy time. I do have some strong views on the refugee issue in the UK and more widely, because I see bigger problems ahead driven by climate and other developments that will increase the flow of refugees further. I’m not a “let them all in” person by any means. But keeping the politics out of it, the handling of the Rwanda issue by the UK government is just sheer incompetence. It is a huge waste of money from a government that has made huge wastes of money its speciality. It is truly dreadful.

The Manchester Christmas Market has moved from the spacious Albert Square, which is being dug up, to several different pedestrian streets around the centre. That works well in the sense that different streets have different themes – so one is mainly eating places, one has stalls selling craft-type items and so on.

I was there last week for the HCSA (NHS procurement) conference where I was speaking, and I had a wander around the market when I arrived on Monday night. The big question of course was – what should I eat? Fully loaded Patatas Bravas from the El Gato Negro stall, right outside that restaurant? A large slab of pizza? The special Christmas Parma from Parmogeddon (!), including chicken parma, chips, gravy, stuffing balls and pigs in blankets? 

I spent a good 20 minutes looking around the market, but given the Germanic origins of these markets, I finally settled on Bratwurst with onions in a roll from The Witch House. And it was delicious. A roughly nine-inch (22cm) sausage, very tasty, and £7.50 which didn’t seem cheap but wasn’t too ridiculous.  (OK, I confess, I has some patatas bravas as well…)

I headed off back towards my hotel, taking a different route, and not 100 metres from my Bratwurst stall, I came across another selling similar products. Except… this one was offering half-metre Bratwursts – in larger rolls of course – for £7! Literally more than twice as much sausage for a slightly lower price!

I was devastated. After my extensive market research, tramping the streets on a very cold night, I had missed the key supplier that could have met my needs in an optimal value for money fashion, if I had just spent a few more minutes looking around. Or maybe if I had conducted my research in a more structured manner I could have discovered my nirvana – perhaps I could have got a list of all the sausage sellers and actually checked them all out before making my choice?  

Now clearly, I don’t know how good the larger sausages were. My selection seemed very good quality, and perhaps the giant competitor was not up to that standard. A good procurement person would of course ask that question, and might wonder how the seller could offer such a low price per metre compared to the competition. But as I walked back to my hotel, I was definitely suffering from a bit of buyer’s remorse.

So, based on my sad but true story, what can we learn from this particular bit of sausage-related Bad Buying?  One key learning is that it is hard to know sometimes just how much market and supplier research is necessary to support and inform a good buying decision. We can’t spend as much time on that as we might sometimes like – clearly, it would be silly to spend hours researching  a £7 sausage purchase. But if there is anything to be taken from this, it is perhaps the point about structuring the research. My random walking did help me make a decision; but doing a little bit of planning, and using some information that was available to me, would have led to a better decision.

And going back to my previous existence at Spend Matters, I wonder whether procurement people sometimes choose procurement technology solutions in a similar way to my decision – a bit of a random walk around the first available products they find. So if you are in the market for a solution, do carry out some structured research, don’t just wander blindly around the many available products. Because if you do, you might just end up with the nine-inch sausage instead of the eighteen-inch.