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.   

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.

(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.

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.

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.   

Sheffield Council has been dysfunctional for some time, and will always be remembered as the council that decided thousands of mature trees would be destroyed in order to make pavements safer, or something like that.

There has been considerable “churn” at both elected councillor and senior officer level in recent years too, which doesn’t help, and the council is now in an “no overall control” state in terms of political leadership. But the Sheffield Fargate container park failure is not really “political” – it appears to be simply an example of what was very bad buying and probably even worse project management.

The controversial complex which was supposed to include shops, bars and entertainment failed due to poor decision making and a lack of governance, an internal audit report has found. The container park was intended as a pop-up space for stalls and shops but was beset by delays and criticism.  The £500,000 project opened in October 2022, but closed just three months later after a host of issues and lack of interest from traders and locals.

The “Head of Service” appears to be the individual who should carry most of the blame here, being responsible for the project. They “did not have dedicated specialist skills, support and resource. The Council’s specialist project management teams were not fully or formally involved, but only called upon using an ‘ad-hoc’ approach”.  It is not clear why specialist project managers weren’t involved but one cause seems to have been a rush to “get it done” to take advantage of various time-limited post-covid grants.

But I have to say, procurement does not seem to have covered itself in glory either.  There was no formal procurement manual in place explaining the desired process to users, for a start. Then the function carried out research on other container parks to try and identify potential suppliers who might be interested in developing the Sheffield park. A list was provided to the project owner as a potential tender list.

However, when the suppliers on this list were approached it was found that they were management companies for the container parks, not the initial developers. No response came from those who were approached”. So not the best piece of market and supplier research I’ve ever come across…

This left just one supplier in the running, a firm that was already speaking to the Head of Service. They duly won the contract without any competitive tendering.  Lack of competition is of course a fundamental driver and predictor of poor performance and bad buying. “Though procurement was signed off at the correct level, there was no evidence to demonstrate that it was robust or complete to result in an informed decision-making process”.  

Then there seems to have been a lack of control in terms of payments to this supplier. There was no implementation plan so milestones were unclear, and the main contractor was not monitored in a structured or regular manner through the installation process.   Some of the report is redacted so we don’t get to see everything but comments such as this don’t fill you with confidence.  “…more worryingly formal financial and contractor monitoring throughout the work was poor or non-existent, furthermore, no risk management was in place”.  Indeed, the auditors were unable to test whether everything procured and paid for was actually received, which is pretty shocking and a very basic failure.

Invoices appeared to have been paid without proper authorisation, and whilst there is no evidence of anything criminal here, the lack of competition and then controls does mean that the risk of fraud or corruption was not at all managed. The budget of some £300K ended up as an actual spend £500K and certainly, the Head of Service should never be allowed near a budget again. 

Anyway, there were problems with the installation including safety issues and only the ground floor could be opened – and that was ten months late, opening in October 2022 rather than the Jan/February plan. And just three months later, the development was closed.

So, various points to note and learn from here. Procurement must make sure budget holders know what the rules are. Procurement also needs to make sure they understand what they are buying when they conduct market and supplier research. Competition is always a Good Thing. Project management is a skill – use professionals. Controls on payments and clear deliverables for suppliers are fundamental and must not be neglected no matter how “urgent” the work is.   

Sorry to Sheffield taxpayers (including my sister…) but the only good news here is that this is yet another interesting case study for my Bad Buying module when I lecture at Skema Business School next year…