We wrote about the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Ajax armoured vehicle fiasco almost a year ago.  Now, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), made up of politicians from all parties, has urged MOD to either fix or scrap the scheme by the end of 2022.

The programme has been running for 10 years and has failed to deliver a single usable vehicle. By December 2021, the Department had paid the supplier, General Dynamics, £3.2 billion, although Ministers now say there will be no more payment until problems are resolved. Noise and vibration problems proved to be a health hazard for soldiers during testing, and there were other performance issues too. The initial design had some 1,200 “capability requirements” and both buyer and supplier under-estimated the complexity of what they were trying to build. In their report published recently, the PAC said this.

The Department’s management of the programme was flawed from the outset as the programme was over-specified and the Department (MOD) and General Dynamics did not understand the scale of the technical challenge. We have seen similar failings again and again in the Department’s management of its equipment programmes. The Ajax programme also raises serious concerns about the Department’s processes and culture for testing whether new equipment is safe to use”.

The MOD still appears to have no idea when, if ever, the vehicles will go into service and will not commit to a target date. And assuming this does not end well in term of delivering adequate vehicles, we can expect a serious legal battle – unless the MOD just caves in and pays up, of course. As the PAC report says, “because of programme delays and missed milestones, the Department estimates that it owes General Dynamics £750 million for completed work, but has not paid anything since December 2020, and the parties remain in dispute”.

The PAC comments follow a report from the National Audit Office in March 2022 which went into more detail, and there were several points in that report that I found particularly shocking. For example:

The Army’s policy of regularly rotating posts means that the programme has had a high turnover of senior personnel, with five senior responsible owners (SROs) since November 2011, and four   programme directors and six project managers since September 2013. Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) replaced the programme manager who had negotiated the reset immediately after the contract was updated in May 2019, affecting the programme’s corporate knowledge. It also replaced other senior programme personnel after the new director general was appointed in December 2019”.

That issue is largely within the control of the MOD, and the “revolving doors” staffing policy has been identified before as an issue; yet it still happens. And some senior roles were not even full-time before 2021! Then we have the Ajax Programme Office, responsible for running programme.

“The programme management office, which supports the SRO, has remained small for a programme of this scale and complexity. In 2016, six of the eight posts were vacant …  By April 2019, it had filled these vacancies to manage the contract renegotiation in 2018, but then reduced resources – at a time when the programme was missing milestones. In July 2020, the programme management office had dropped to four posts…”

What madness is this? A huge, critical and failing programme, and you reduce the programme management resources? Why? Would nobody take the jobs because they knew it was a doomed programme? Or did senior people want it to fail? Or did they think that a lack of resources might be a good excuse when the proverbial hit the fan?  Anyway, it is a shame the PAC didn’t pick up on this issue.

The NAO report identifies many other issues, from poor programme governance to specification issues, and really it is a textbook example of how not to run a major equipment procurement programme. It will certainly deserve its own chapter if and when “Bad Buying Part 2” emerges …

We are looking at increasing defence spending in the UK for obvious reasons following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That is fine; but as a taxpayer, I don’t want to see a penny more of my money going to MOD until I see a detailed and convincing plan laying out how the organisation will ensure it doesn’t waste more billions on equipment.  Ajax isn’t the first disaster of this nature; it just happens too often.

Quite a few stories of procurement and supply chain failure we hear (and quite a few of those included in my Bad Buying book) have at least an element of humour about them. KFC running out of chicken wasn’t very funny for the senior management there, and the customer who phoned the police to complain that he couldn’t get his fried chicken obviously took it seriously.  But for most of us, we probably had a chuckle. Government failings are annoying when it is taxpayers’ hard earned money being wasted; but it is rare to see a case of supply chain failure that actually has the potential to cost the lives of babies.

But that is the situation in the USA, where shortages of formula milk for infants is threatening the health or even the survival of very young children. But why is this happening, in one of the wealthiest, most technically advanced nations in the world, where capitalism has over the decades brought a high standard of living (in global terms) and abundant supply of almost everything and anything to its people?

It is a complicated situation, and I’m only giving an overview here. The shortages appear to be driven to a considerable extent by manufacturing plant shut-downs, driven in part by quality issues identified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA (food and drugs administration).  As Sky News reported, “Abbott Laboratories was forced to shut its site in Sturgis, Michigan and recall a number of its powdered formula products after four babies who had been given formula developed bacterial infections”.  No firm link has been proven but the Michigan factory has been closed for weeks.

Even when the factory re-opens, it will take 8 – 10 weeks to get product back on the shelves, the company says. And once shortages emerge, panic buying inevitably exacerbates the situation, and there may be a bit of a baby boom going on in the US too. The U.S. government also has pretty rigid trade policies, making most formula imported from Europe illegal to buy in the United States. Tariffs act as another deterrent.  Maybe that is genuinely for health reasons; or maybe it is at least in part a nice bit of protectionism to suit the manufacturers.

But from a procurement point of view, this market concentration and the inflexibility of government-funded schemes for lower income people have contributed to the problem. Two companies – Abbott and Reckitt Benckiser – dominate the industry with about 80% national market share.  Nestlé, which sells under its Gerber brand, controls another 10%.

Part of the reason for these firms’ success is that they are the only makers approved by the US government to provide baby formula through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, which supports low-income families. It appears that most States, who fund these schemes, have negotiated deals with just one provider.

The Guardian reports; “ Nearly half of baby formula in the US is bought under the Wic program, aimed at helping low-income women, infants and children. States give exclusive contract rights for this formula to one company under a bidding process. Abbott provides formula to about half of the babies receiving Wic benefits. When these products disappeared, families were left scrambling to find alternatives”.

This has driven what has proved to be an unhealthy level of market concentration, as it also seems that production is also pretty concentrated within firms in terms of the number of production plants. Now procurement can’t always control market dynamics; but could government as well as buyers (in retail chains for instance) have done more to encourage new suppliers and a more competitive market?

So the old principle of consolidation, aggregation and leverage that procurement has lived by for decades has been driving behaviour here. But once shortages kick-in, recipients of the WIC benefit have been unable to find the approved supplier’s product, leaving them in a desperate state – and an example of the unintended consequences of what must have seemed like a sensible procurement strategy. The U.S. House of Representatives has now passed bills to try and address the shortage. One would waive certain requirements that limit brands and quantities of formula recipients of the special supplemental nutrition for women, infants, and children can purchase, according to CBS News.

Again, supply chain and procurement risk and resilience has not been considered as it should have been here, with cost driving the decisions. We’ve seen over the years so many examples where procurement behaviour has driven dependence on a few suppliers – or even just one (there’s an interesting example featuring VW cars in the book, for instance). It rarely ends well. So next time someone says, “we should rationalise our supply base and dramatically reduce the number of suppliers”, do remember that strategy can have benefits, but also caries risks. Be aware of that and develop the strategy accordingly.

Back to the highly concerning baby milk story. I’m sure more will emerge, and if you want a fuller explanation, I can recommend Kelly Barner’s excellent podcast here, in which she goes into more detail in terms of what has been going on.

Most people see government buying as something rather dull and bureaucratic, but get it wrong and it can cost the taxpayer a fortune.  So everyone should be interested in the new Procurement Bill published last week, which will define the regulations for UK public procurement.  We will have more on that here when I’ve read it properly and also considered what people smarter than me think of it!

One of the key principles of the new regulations is to give buyers more flexibility and freedom. But I do have a fear that could lead to more corruption if it allows crooks (whether politicians or public servants) to run dodgy procurement processes to favour their preferred supplier. However, the new approach will I believe still require contracting authorities to consider basic issues such as “fairness”. That is where a lot of the biggest failures in the past have arisen – such as described in the following extract from the Bad Buying book, describing a particualr case that cost the taxpayer over £100 million because of obvious bias and unfairness in the procurement process.  

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The case involved a 2016 legal challenge by Energy Solutions Ltd., the incumbent supplier for a huge contract to clean up de-commissioned UK nuclear power stations. They lost the tender, run by contracting authority the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in 2014, to a Babcock Fluor consortium (CFP).  But there were a number of mistakes made during the procurement process.

One related to “pass / fail thresholds”; areas where the NDA defined up-front that failure to meet certain conditions would lead to instant disqualification for the bidder. However, once bids were scored, it became clear that one supplier had failed to meet the threshold. But instead of chucking them out of the competition, the NDA decided to let them stay. Now this may all seem a little technical, but it is clearly unfair; and public procurement regulations really don’t like unfair buying processes.

As the judge said in his statement, you cant change your mind about the rules once you get into the buying process.  After a bidder has failed to meet a defined threshold, you can’t ask “was that threshold Requirement really that important?”, arrive at the conclusion that it was not, and then use that conclusion to justify increasing the score to a higher one than the content merited (or to justify failing to disqualify that bidder)”.

To disguise the failure of that firm, the NDA team also adjusted original scores given to the bidders during the marking process. But they failed to provide any audit trail or justification for these changes, a fact that became obvious through the trial. The NDA announced that CFP had won – which promoted the legal challenge. There were other issues too, and the final outcome saw the judge finding in favour of Energy Solutions, and the NDA agreeing to pay the firm (and their consortium partners Bechtel) almost £100 million to settle the legal claim for their loss of profit on the contract.

It is impossible to know what went on behind the scenes in cases like this.  Was it sheer ignorance of the rules? Was someone very senior determined a particular supplier should or should not win the contract? With other failures in previous chapters, a lack of understanding or knowledge caused the problem, but I’m left somewhat baffled here.

Certainly, a number of basic buying principles seemed to be forgotten. Treating bidders fairly is a good principle, whether you work for a government body that must do that legally, or for a private firm. Keeping sensible documentation to explain your decision is vital. That’s so you can explain to bidders why they won, or didn’t, but it is also a basic precaution against corruption and fraud, one that all organisations should take. If no-one can explain logically why my firm won a particular contract, then maybe it was because of the bulging brown envelope I was seen handing over to the senior buyer”.

In part 1 here I discussed the reports that Camelot, the current operator of the UK National Lottery, is going to challenge the government’s decision to award the contract for management of the Lottery to a different firm, Allwyn, headed by a Czech tycoon. That decision follows a lengthy and no doubt exhaustive “procurement” process.

There are suggestions that Allwyn have offered to make more money for charitable causes than Camelot included in their proposal. According to reports, that amount is not contractually  guaranteed, but may have played a major role in the selection decision.  Which leads us into the question of confidence – how do we know that supplier really will deliver what they promised?

There was a great comment on LinkedIn related to the part 1 article. The writer told of a major NHS procurement where a US supplier came in with a knockout bid, which led to other potential suppliers simply pulling out. Then, literally on the day the new service was due to go live, “At the eleventh hour the supplier had withdrawn, admitting that they couldn’t deliver the brief and make the savings claimed”.

There is a huge difference between what suppliers (some suppliers at least) will claim they can do and what they actually can deliver. There are no magic answers to this, but in my book “Bad Buying” I suggest thinking about “analyse, reference, test”.

Analyse means looking into the firm, the product or service that you’re going to buy, doing your research on the supplier and on whatever you are buying. The amount and depth of research needs to be proportionate to how much you’re spending and how critical what you’re buying is.

Reference means asking other customers of your potential supplier or users of the product or service you are buying about their experience. It’s an obvious step, yet it is amazing how many organisations don’t bother with this step. I was asked for input on a legal case in 2018 where an incumbent supplier challenged the decision by a large government body to award a contract to several other firms, meaning that the incumbent was going to lose all its business. This was a really sensitive service; if it went wrong, you might well see reports on newspaper front pages.

Yet when the incumbent firm asked questions about how the procurement decision was made, it became clear that the government organisation had done virtually nothing to check out what other suppliers were claiming in their bids. They had not researched the track record of the firms; they had not taken up references from other customers; they did not even seem to have checked whether the directors of bidding firms had criminal records! The buyer was simply believing the bidders and hoping for the best. The competition was eventually re-started as I assume the lawyers told the contracting authority they were going to lose in court.

Test means using techniques such as pilot programmes or small-scale rollouts that enable you to get a sense of the supplier and their capability, without immediately betting the farm on a particular approach. In a large organisation, you could run a geographical experiment with a new supplier or product. Give it a try in an area, region, an office or a factory, rather than moving immediately to handing over your entire business. Or you might initially use a supplier on a relatively unimportant piece of work.

In the case of the lottery, I assume that Allwyn’s references have been thoroughly checked out. Perhaps most critical – if this comes to court – will be how the projections of the money to be made for charity have been developed and verified. I’m sure the buyer would be expected to analyse Allwyn’s assumptions and proposals very carefully to assess the level of confidence in their figures. If they did not, that could spell trouble.

The final point to make here is that one report quoted Camelot as saying the evaluation had not been carried out as described in the tender. Now if that is the case, the lottery folk are in real trouble.

In terms of public sector tender evaluation, not doing what you told the bidders you would do is in most cases enough for a challenge to succeed.

You simply can’t introduce new factors once bids have been received evaluation; or even use factors that aren’t explicit. Don’t make assumptions. You can’t mark down a bidder for not providing a detailed quality plan if your question simply said, “tell me how you will deliver this work”. If the quality plan matters, tell them to provide it.

Enough of my ranting about evaluation processes (a favourite topic of mine, and we haven’t even got onto evaluating and scoring “price”). We will await the next stage of the Camelot story with interest.

Life goes on despite the temptation to doomscroll Twitter and Facebook all day for the latest news on Russian atrocities.  But there hasn’t really been much else to cheer, and some news that should have generated more attention in normal times passed almost unremarked.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published a report last week on the provision of children’s social care (fostering and children’s homes) to UK local councils.  The CMA looks at issues from an economic point of view rather than as procurement experts, but their worrying findings in this case clearly indicate some major procurement (and market) issues.

The final report “found there is a shortage of appropriate places in children’s homes and with foster carers, meaning that some children are not getting the right care from their placement. Some children are also being placed too far away from where they previously lived or in placements that require them to be separated from their siblings. This shortage also means that high prices are often being paid by local authorities, who are responsible for placing children in appropriate settings, with these costs picked up by taxpayers”.

The CMA also commented on the risk of providers going bust – and yet in some parts of the market, providers are making what we might call “excess profits”, with margins of 20%.

“For the children’s homes providers in our cross-GB data set we have seen steady operating profit margins averaging 22.6% from 2016-20, with average prices increasing from £2,977 to £3,830 per week over the period, an average annual increase of 3.5%, after accounting for inflation”.

As an example of the sort of supplier that plays in this market (accepting of course that not all are of this nature), the Guardian recently featured a report about Robert McGuinness, who was paid £1.5m by two local authorities between 2015 and 2020. He owned a “community interest company” (CIC) which provided vocational training to children from 14-16, excluded from mainstream schools.

“The owner of a children’s home in Bolton shut down for “serious and widespread failures” spent thousands intended for educating marginalised children on drinking, foreign trips and his pub business, the Guardian can reveal”.

He siphoned money out of the CIC through a “director’s loan”  to invest in another of his businesses (running a bar).  The bar has since gone bankrupt and the liquidator says “there is currently no prospect” of the CIC settling the £100,000 loan repaid.  He also drives a Lamborghini – just the sort of public-spirited person you’d want to see running sensitive social services for youngsters.

The market failure evident in this sector has a number of causes. One ironically arises from the attempts to regulate the market. Even though that is well-meaning and certainly necessary to some extent, it creates more barriers to entry. Well-functioning markets see new entrants coming in and competing all the time, and also firms can exit the market relatively easily. Buyers can also switch suppliers easily in well-functioning markets; not the case here given the nature of the services.   

There are other barriers to entry in this case, such as the need for capital investment.  Over the past 20 years or so, the amount of public sector provision of such services has disappeared, replaced by private provision. One reason has been the need for investment in council-owned facilities. Rather than finding the money for that, as central government grants to local government have declined, councils have increasingly closed down their own facilities such as children’s homes and care homes  and bought those services from private providers.

That has weakened competition further. Then we can see a failure of procurement and contract management too. Do buyers know what margins are being made by their providers?  And how well are providers managed? I suspect because the users of the service are kids, there isn’t a lot of connection between the providers, the users and the commissioners (and budget holders) for the services.  Councils have seen headcount reduced in areas such as contract management too as income was squeezed.  The report on the gov.uk website agrees that something needs to be done.

“The CMA’s analysis finds that the main reason for this is the fragmented system by which services are commissioned, which means that local authorities are not able to leverage their role as the purchasers of placements or to plan properly for the future”.

To address these issues, the CMA recommends that the UK Government, Scottish and Welsh Governments, “create or develop national and regional organisations that could support local authorities with their responsibilities in this sector. These would improve commissioning by carrying out and publishing national and regional analysis and providing local authorities and collective bodies with guidance and by supporting them to meet more placement needs in their local area”.

I am no lover of aggregation of spend and centralisation of public sector procurement.  But this does seem like an area where a national “category strategy” and some serious procurement talent needs to be brought to bear.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After our last article featuring criticism of the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), there has been more positive news in recent days, even if it relates to past failure. The development relates to the organisation gearing up for a legal battle with a private equity firm headed by billionaire businessman Guy Hands.

Twenty-five 25 years ago, MOD sold off houses that were used for military families. The deal was controversial at the time and has continued that way, as it became more and more obvious that it was a lousy deal for the taxpayer and indeed for many occupants of these properties. As The Guardian described it,

“In 1996, the Conservative government sold 57,400 properties in the so-called “married quarters estate” to Annington Homes, which was then bought for £1.7bn by Nomura, a Japanese investment bank that employed (Guy) Hands. He later left Nomura to found the Terra Firma private equity firm, and bought Annington for £3.2bn in 2012”.

An odd aspect of the deal was that the MOD retained responsibility for maintenance and refurbishment of the properties, whilst paying what was supposedly a discounted rent on a 200-year lease. In other government PFI-type deals of the period (including a vary large one that I was personally involved with), the buyer of the property took on full responsibility for maintenance, so at least the taxpayer was transferring a significant element of risk.  In the MOD case, the aim was to use the money raised from the sale to renovate the properties – but of course that would benefit the new owners too.  But in any case, the MOD has not done a great job of maintaining the estate in the intervening years.

The commercial naivety shown by MOD has enabled the buyers of the property to make huge profits on the back of house price inflation, with an annual return averaging over 13%, according to the National Audit Office.  That gain included Annington issuing debt last year (against the property income stream) that enabled it to pay a dividend of £794m to its parent company. Here is what I said about the deal in the Bad Buying book.

“A National Audit Office (NAO) report in January 2018 laid out failings in terms of the buying and contract management process. The Department’s own calculations suggested retaining ownership would be cheaper – but for fairly nebulous “policy benefits”, the sale went ahead anyway. It then made very cautious estimates about future house price inflation and failed to build any mechanisms into the contract to claim a share of windfall gains. Of course, house prices rose faster than MOD’s cautious model, and the rate of return for Annington and its investors has been far higher than expected.

The NAO identified other problems – for some reason, MOD retained responsibility for maintaining the property, which it hasn’t done well, and there has been little collaboration between MOD and Annington to seek further benefits. Overall, it’s an example of failure that could comfortably sit in several different chapters here, but a lack of commercial understanding and negotiation skills in MOD were certainly amongst the issues; the NAO report estimated that the Ministry of Defence would have been between £2.2 and £4.2 BILLION better off if it had retained the estate”.

But the government is now taking an interesting stance. Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin is trying to take back ownership of the properties through exercising “statutory leasehold enfranchisement rights”, a somewhat obscure legal manoeuvre. The MoD has sought to take two houses initially to test whether Annington can be forced out, whilst as you might expect, Annington claims the government has no right to do so and is behaving badly.  This may end up in court; but the firm has now offered a one-off payment of £105 to contribute to refurbishment if the MOD backs off from the legal route.

So that suggests Annington knows there is some chance it might lose in court; and arguably that is already a potential £105 million “procurement benefit” for MOD. Not bad on Andrew Forzani’s end of year savings report… But maybe there is more if the Minister has the appetite for a fight.

And just to complete the story, the chair of Annington is Baroness Liddell, an ex-Labour Party MP and now a Labour peer. It’s quite amusing hearing her now justifying the unfettered capitalism that Hands has always propounded, whilst it is the Conservative Party that tries to claw money back from the billionaire’s firm …

Our attention bandwidth has been pretty much occupied by Covid for the last two years now, with some small space left for assimilating news about trips to Barnard Castle, Downing Street parties and maybe the goats in Llandudno for a bit of light relief.

That has led to many of the usual issues that might have got more media coverage slipping through the net, including some that might have been featured here as Bad Buying cases studies. Outside pandemic-related stories, government procurement has not really hit the headlines. Yet huge sums are still being spent, including in the defence arena.

The UK Labour Party recently published a “Dossier of waste in the Ministry of Defence 2010 – 2021”, a report looking at the projects that have cost the taxpayer “at least £13B in taxpayers’ money since 2010”. Many were fundamentally procurement-related and the report is a depressing litany of write-offs, overspent procurements and contract cancellations.  Often this sort of report is light on the analysis and heavy on the politics, but I must say that this one is worth reading – it appears to be thoroughly researched, using reputable source material and non-sensationalist analysis.

However, although the report covers the period starting with the election of the Tory-led coalition in 2010, the truth is that Labour has not historically had a great record on defence spending either. It has been a challenge for every government. Indeed, programme lead times are often so drawn-out, it is virtually impossible to pin the blame accurately on anyone – politician, official, consultant or supplier side.  

For example, the Nimrod maritime patrol and attack aircraft  “waste” of £3.7 Billion quoted in the report, based on 2013 MOD accounts and arising from final contract exit in that year, relates to contracts let way back in 1996 in the dying days of the John Major Tory government. But the significant issues and problems through the development phase happened under Labour, before the coalition finally (and probably sensibly) pulled the plug in 2010.

The other issue with this new report s that it is much stronger on putting numbers to the problem than it is in terms of offering solutions. The final words from John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, are these;

This Government shows no serious intent to get a grip of these deep-seated problems. So as our first steps from day one, Labour in Government would:

  • Commission the NAO to conduct an across-the-board audit of MoD waste
  • Make the MoD the first department subject to our new Office for Value of Money’s tough regime on spending decisions.

Reforming the department will not be easy, but this report takes a crucial first step in revealing the unacceptable scale of waste in the MoD.

Well, he is certainly correct to say reform won’t be easy. But I’m not sure what an NAO “across the board audit” will achieve.  NAO can do little more really than verify the numbers. The organisation does on occasion also offer recommendations for performance  improvement, but has no resource to follow that through into implementation. And it is far from clear what the new Labour  “Office for Value for Money” is actually going to do that Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Services, NAO and Treasury can’t already. (Although I am polishing up my application to be its CEO, of course).

We’ve had (and still have) some very capable procurement leaders in MOD and people such as Bernard Gray –  who had his foibles, but possessed a first-class brain – have had a go at running the totality of Defence Acquisition. They haven’t managed to improve matters much, because the issues are clearly deeply engrained in the whole of the military ecosystem. Problems go way beyond “acquisition” or “procurement” into very high level and fundamental issues such as the three services split, uniformed/civilian tension, the pressure on military leaders to lie to secure budget, arguments over domestic industry capability, and the unhealthy proximity of the buy-side and the supply-side in UK defence.

If these tough challenges aren’t addressed – and they probably won’t be given the short-term nature of British politics – then I’m afraid “waste” and “procurement failures” will continue. That applies whichever political party is in charge and whichever Defence Minister has his or her couple of years pretending to run things.

Today, our final two Bad Buying awards for 2021!

Creative Fraud:  I-Tek, its Owner and Staff

Multiple Fraud Related to Imported Goods (and more…)

This case may seem relatively small compared  to  some of the mega-waste examples we have seen this year, but what made it a worthy winner was the way it combined three distinct types of procurement fraud in one rather neat package.

Beyung S. Kim, owner of Iris Kim Inc, also known as I-Tek, and his employees, Seung Kim, Dongjin Park, Chang You, Pyongkon Pak, and Li-Ling Tu, pleaded guilty to a procurement fraud scheme involving millions of dollars in government contracts over several years, mainly supplying various US defence agencies. They were sent to prison in August 2021, after providing everything from swimming trunks for West Point cadets to spools of concertina wire. The problem was that the goods were made in China, but were illegally re-labelled to look like US-made products. That violated the terms of the contracts as well as laws that stipulate certain contracts must be fulfilled by US-made products.

The second fraud came when investigators found that an employee who was a disabled military veteran was listed as the firm’s president in some bids – but he wasn’t. That meant the firm was eligible for contracts reserved for companies owned by disabled ex-service people. (We’ve seen a number of frauds of that nature in recent years, so of which are featured in my Bad buying book).  Finally, the conspirators also submitted false documents and lied about the value of the goods imported into the U.S. to avoid higher duties and taxes.

All in all, a pretty wide-ranging procurement fraud, covering several relatively common areas of illegal behaviour, adding up to an impressive winner of the Bad Buying Creative Fraud Award.

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Not Really Technology Award: Greensill Capital

Not an SCF FinTech, Just a Risky Lender (and Several Very Naughty Boys)

Greensill Capital, the firm built by Aussie farmer’s son Lex Greensill, collapsed in March, and the losses to investors who backed the firm are still unquantified but may run into billions. The UK taxpayer is also on the hook for state-backed loans and perhaps even pension support for steelworkers (because of Greensill’s close links with Liberty Steel).

Greensill presented itself as offering innovative tech-backed supply chain finance (SCF) products, but (to cut a long story short), their business model turned out to involve borrowing money cheaply by presenting the investment as low risk, then actually lending it out in a VERY risky manner.

Ultimately, it was lending money to the Gupta Liberty steel empire based on the “security” of vague future revenue flows that did for Greensill. Some of those revenues were supposedly going to come from firms that weren’t even current customers of Liberty!

This was not “supply chain finance” in the sense that any off us in the supply chain world had ever heard of before. It looked very much like unsecured lending with funds coming from sources (including Credit Suisse-promoted bonds) who were unaware of just how risky that lending really was.  Greensill also talked about being a “fintech” business, which they clearly weren’t, but dropping that bit of bulls**t into the conversation gave the firm more credibility. Their lending was facilitated through other genuine fintech-type platforms such as Taulia.  

Lex Greensill himself leveraged his role as a UK government “Crown Representative”, working to promote SCF within the Cabinet Office, to wheedle his way into winning some work in the public sector. He was supported for frankly incomprehensible reasons by a number of key people, including the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. The various investigations showed that some senior procurement people and politicians were not taken in, including Minister Francis Maude, but Greensill got onto a Crown Commercial Service framework, and won contracts for offering NHS payments to pharmacies as well as “salary forwarding” to some NHS staff.  

Government’s Chief Commercial Officer at the time, Bill Crothers, initially didn’t seem keen but came round to the Greensill cause, and became a director of the firm, no doubt encouraged like ex-Prime Minister David Cameron by the prospects of making millions. Cameron’s behaviour has stained his reputation – such as it was – forever. Having left office, he harassed everyone he knew in government to promote Greensill’s cause, right through to 2020 when he tried to gain advantage for Greensill under pandemic financing and lending schemes.

We can’t call what happened “fraud” yet, although investigations that might lead to criminal charges are continuing. It is hard to believe that nothing criminal went on, but we will see. However, whatever it was, it fully deserves the Bad Buying Not Really Technology Award based on the scale, innovative nature and continuing implications of Greensill’s actions.  Indeed, if we had nominated an overall winner this year, I suspect Greensill would have won that ultimate accolade…

Happy New Year and let’s hope for less Bad Buying in 2022!

Two more awards today.

UK (Private sector): The UK Water Industry

Not spending enough money (and failed regulation…)

There were a number of long-running procurement-related scandals which continued to rumble on this year, notably the investigations into the Grenfell tower disaster, and the Horizon Post Office scandal.  Both showed appalling behaviour from various suppliers along with failures on the buy-side. Procurement weakness allowed supplier failings to translate into tragic consequences for those affected by the Grenfell fire and those who lost their livelihoods or wrongly went to prison in the case of the Fujitsu / Post Office Horizon IT system. The judges were also tempted to look into the causes behind the global shortage of chips (electronic, not potato), which affected supply of all sorts of items. But they decided that was all a bit too complicated …

So the multiple winners here are the private water and sewage companies. Research by the Financial Times showed that they slashed investment in critical infrastructure by up to a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised.  That reduction in spending came about despite bills going up 31% in real terms – and some £372 billion has been paid out in dividend payments to parent companies and investors. In 2019, only 16 per cent of England’s rivers and seas met the minimum “good or better” ecological status as defined by the EU’s water framework directive. And 2021 saw reports of raw sewage being regularly discharged straight into rivers and the sea whenever it rained hard. My friends who swim in the Thames thought it was algae coating their skin after their river swimming this autumn … 

Of course, this is a regulated industry so we might call it a joint public / private sector award as the government must share the blame for inadequate regulation and what is in effect a market failure. But this is a case where the “bad buying” failure is in not spending enough (rather than overspending). So we will hold our proverbial noses whilst awarding the water industry the Bad Buying UK (Private Sector) Award.

…….

UK (Public sector): Covid Test and Trace Programme

Incompetence in Managing Consultants

The judging panel had a difficult task in this category, with continued overspend on HS2 (and every other rail project), and more revelations about PPE expenditure. Social care is experiencing a sort of market failure, whilst the MOD Ajax armoured vehicles programme was particularly unfortunate not to win the prize given the various elements of that particular fiasco. And the panel argued long and hard about whether the crazy regulatory structure of the energy market which ended up with dozens of firms going bust might count as “bad buying”.

But ultimately, for a clear waste of money through inappropriate procurement and even worse ongoing contract management, the UK pandemic Test and Trace programme was finally declared the narrow winner.  

The programme kicked off during the first wave of Covid in early 2021, and we could understand why initially consulting resource was needed to make things happen quickly. But for 18 months now, various officials in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have promised that the number and cost of consultants was going to be dramatically reduced. But nothing appears to have happened, as hundreds of millions have been spent with the big consulting firms.

David Williams, then the DHSC second permanent secretary, assured Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee back in January that there was a plan in place to “reduce markedly” the number of consultants from Deloitte who were working on the programme. (Williams has since become permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence – that bodes well for sorting out waste in that area!)  But at the time he claimed there were “around 900” staff from the consultancy working on Test and Trace, who he expected were costing £1,000 a day each – meaning the daily total was close to £1 million just for one firm.  Some Deloitte staff were charged at a rate of over £6 a day too.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA which now runs NHS Test and Trace, said in July 2021 that there was a ‘very detailed ramp-down plan’ to reduce the number of contractors. But 1,230 consultants were still employed at the end of October, figures showed. At the sort of rates paid, that was still costing over £1.3 million A DAY.

This is not “consulting” in the true sense of the word. It is “warm reasonably intelligent bodies sitting at desks / at home on their laptops”. It is staff substitution, not consulting, and those people should not be costing £1000+ a day.

DHSC has had 18 months to actually recruit people on fixed term contracts at maybe £50K a year to replace the £250K a year consultants.  The profit for Deloitte partners (and indeed those of other firms who have been involved on the programme) is enormous, all based on undeserved income from the public purse. And it is not even as if the programme has been a great success … but let’s not get into that.

Despite the tough competition we are confident that this case is a worthy winner as it represents a basic old-fashioned lack of concern for spending public money with consultants – something that is far too common, unfortunately.  So the Test and Trace programme wins the Bad Buying UK (Public Sector) Award.

Look out for the final two awards tomorrow!