The Conservative government has been criticised for some of the procurement actions of the last year or so, with allegations of mismanagement and cronyism. But the Labour Party has not been free of controversy in terms of how its politicians spend public money in local government.

Croydon council in south London has basically declared itself bankrupt, with mismanagement of a council-owned property company and bad decisions about acquisition of property investments contributing to the dire financial situation. We may come back to this as more detail emerges.

Meanwhile, Joe Anderson mayor of Liverpool, was arrested last December on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.  He and four others were held as part of a police investigation into the awarding of building contracts in the city. The BBC reported that a “year-long police probe, Operation Aloft, has focussed on a number of property developers”.

An inspection ordered by the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government reported in March and the inspector, Max Caller, found major failings “in governance and practice”. That has led to the imposition of Commissioners in the City to help the council implement the changes needed. But the report also commented on Anderson’s son David, now caught up in controversy. His firm SCC was awarded contracts by the council through what seemed to be unusual procurement routes.

Mr Caller said that a decision to award SSC a £250,000 health and safety contract on the project to dismantle Liverpool’s Churchill Way Flyovers in 2019 ‘exposed the site teams to considerable safety risks’. The company had no previous relationship with the council before the ‘urgent appointment was instructed’ as work got underway in 2019.

The report calls for more power for the procurement function in the Council, but also highlights that it needs to up its game. More criticism for circumventing official processes and policies appears to be attached to the staff in other departments such as Highways.

This is only the latest in a long line of issues around public sector construction contracts. That area of spend has historically been plagued by claims of and indeed proven corruption in local government and elsewhere.

 Why is that? Well, it is one of the biggest spend categories for local government and many organisations, and it is also relatively opaque in terms of benchmarking costs and prices. So social care, or IT hardware are also huge spend areas for councils for example; but I’d suggest it would be pretty obvious if a care firm or laptop supplier were charging unrealistically high prices to fund bribery. If a firm was charging £25 an hour for carers when the standard for other firms or other councils was £18, even the slowest auditor or councillor might notice!

But a few hundred grand added onto a multi-million pound building contract for a new school or sports centre is much harder to spot. If we’re talking the council buying land or property, then there is even less of a clear “market value”. 

These are also areas where historically, professional procurement has been less involved than in some other spend categories. The construction departments in councils have had a reputation for being powerful and something of a law unto themselves.  I remember 20 years ago a friend of mine who was MD of a firm that supplied heating equipment refusing to deal with one Yorkshire council because the corruption was so overt. Basically his firm was expected to pay a % commission to certain individuals on every order.

So a lack of professional procurement scrutiny, bespoke work and limited market price benchmarks are factors that indicate how open to corruption a spend area might be.

Back to Liverpool and there is also a link with a controversial construction project where Unite, the trade union led by Len McCluskey, is the buyer.  The project appears to have cost almost £100 million against the £57 originally forecast. The BBC reported that; “The contract to build the 170-room hotel and conference centre was awarded in 2015 to the Flanagan Group, a Liverpool company run by an associate of McCluskey, who is the union’s general secretary. Another contract on the project was given to a company owned by the son of Joe Anderson, Liverpool’s mayor.”

Yes, it’s him again …

Anyway, Unite has responded saying “Every step of the way, the production of this complex was overseen by independent surveyors and architects. Accountability was built into the process to ensure that at every stage of this development we got value for this union’s money. All this was overseen by our democratically-elected, independent 62-strong executive council”.

 Bad Buying? Or worse?  I’m not sure.

We wrote about the collapse of Greensill Capital here, and more information has emerged on a daily basis over the last couple of weeks. It seems increasingly clear that the talk of innovative new supply chain finance models was nonsense, concealing some old-fashioned dodgy lending to unstable companies. (after I drafted this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others, including Bill Crothers and Jereny Heywood, head of the civil service).

For instance, Greensill’s financing of the Gupta group of companies was based (in part at least) on a notional future income stream. But there were no actual orders, no contracts and not even any named customers in some cases! That is a million miles away from traditional invoice factoring. The way this very high risk lending was then dressed up and sold by firms such as Credit Suisse as low-risk bonds will I suspect keep the courts occupied over coming years.

But another interesting aspect has been the role played by the UK’s ex-Prime Minster David Cameron. He appointed Lex Greensill as his “crown commercial representative” for supply chain finance back in 2014. Greensill got his CBE in 2017 and Cameron then took up a role as an adviser to the firm when he left office. His share options were rumoured to be worth tens of millions. Last year, he is alleged to have lobbied the Treasury and the chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to try and obtain government grants and loans for Greensill. To the credit of senior civil servants, most of Greensill’s applications were refused.

That has led to questions about the propriety and ethics of Cameron’s intervention. But it raises some broader questions too. In an excellent article in the Sunday Times (behind the paywall unfortunately), columnist Mathew Syed raises the general issue of ex-politicians and their activities post-politics.

For instance, as Syed says, “ Robert Rubin, former US Treasury secretary, helped introduce a law that allowed banks to merge with insurance firms, something lobbied for by Citibank. He left the Treasury the day after the law was passed and, three months after that, was hired by — you guessed it — Citibank. He earned $126 million (£91 million) over eight years as the bank loaded up on risk, then used his connections to secure $45 billion in taxpayer bailouts when it failed”.

The former Danish Prime Minster Thorning-Schmidt says that she is still independent, despite co-chairing Facebook’s Oversight Board. But she now argues that an aggressive regulatory approach could “infringe freedom of speech”.  She won’t say how much she is being paid in this role – but we know that Nick Clegg, ex leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, now VP of Global Affairs at the firm is on something around $1 million a year. Ex UK Chancellor Philip Hammond now has 14 jobs including with the finance minister of Saudi Arabia, whilst his predecessor George Osborne has nine jobs including at the world’s largest investment firm.

Syed points out that what we are seeing is dangerous and calls this sort of process “retroactive inducements”. It is undermining our faith in capitalism and democracy as politicians see that their route to future wealth is to help market incumbents, Syed argues. “Unconsciously or otherwise, the revolving door is lubricated”.

I would slightly disagree with Syed in that it does not need to be an “incumbent” – Greensill was a relatively new market entrant. But the concern is that those in positions of power might see future benefits coming to them if they do favours for a firm now.

It’s not just the politicians…

And of course it is not just Cameron and co that we should worry about. Bill Crothers became vice-chairman of Greensill having been government’s Chief Commercial Officer from 2012-15.  Now I don’t think for a moment Crothers did particular favours for Greensill in that role – I didn’t pick up any hint of that at the time. In fact, I have heard it suggested that Crothers may have actually put money into Greensill himself, so may be a personal creditor.

But you can see the danger here of senior decision makers looking to their futures.  I know it is an issue in the Ministry of Defence. So many senior people, particularly uniformed mid-level officers who leave the forces in their forties or fifties, end up working for defence suppliers. Are they tempted to help those firms whilst they are public servants, or be gentle with them if they are a contract manager with the firm as a supplier, because of what they might get in the future?

Syed calls for change. The solutions are simple, he says.  He wants “stronger constraints on lobbying and donations, together with new rules on monopolies and moral hazard. Crucially, we should also raise the pay of ministers and regulators, with the quid pro quo of longer periods that prevent them from working for corporations after leaving office”.  I don’t agree that these are “simple” issues though – higher pay for Ministers would not go down well with many! But he is absolutely right when he says this.

Above all, though, we need a transformation in values of the kind that has (partially) changed medicine. For until seemingly decent people can see that their actions are unethical, we cannot hope to win. It is, I think, the only way to save capitalism from itself”.

And I would extend that beyond politicians, to the ranks of the senior public, military and civil service too. If key people are constantly thinking about what might be in it for them at some future stage of their career, we’ve got big problems.

(On the day I published this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others including Bill Crothers and the late Jeremy Heywood, ex-head of the civil service. So we may come back to this story again once I have digested that!)

Readers of the Financial Times (or the Sydney Morning Herald) will be well up to speed with the events at Greensill Capital, a leading provider of supply chain finance funding and solutions. Other broadsheet newspapers and websites are also getting increaingly interested in the story.

Lex Greensill is the son of an Australian watermelon farmer. After an early career at Morgan Stanley and Citibank, he made a big impact in the UK as a “crown commercial representative” in Cabinet Office and supply chain finance tsar for David Cameron’s government. When Cameron stepped down, Greensill made him an adviser with (allegedly) a barn-full of share options.

Greensill also recruited Bill Crothers, government’s Chief Commercial Officer (the top procurement man) from 2012-15. Crothers was deputy chairman of Greensill for a while but resigned as a director in February, and has perhaps sensibly dropped all reference to Greensill now from his LinkedIn profile. Greensill also incomprehensibly got a CBE from the Queen in 2017, whilst Crothers got a CB in 2013, the equivalent award for civil servants.

However, in a few short months, Greensill Capital has gone from planning a flotation that would have valued the firm at $7 to basically going under. We don’t have the time or space to go into all the details here, but broadly, the Greensill proposition was this. A firm such as Vodafone might offer suppliers payment terms of, say, 60 or 90 days. But the suppliers have another option. Instead of waiting for payment, they can get immediate cash from Greensill – at a small discount. So if Vodafone owes you £10,000, then you can get paid now by Greensill for perhaps a 2% discount (£9,800).

Then of course Vodafone pays Greensill the £10K after 60 days, so Vodafone benefits from a cash flow perspective. Greensill makes its money on that margin (the £200).  Nothing wrong with this conceptually or ethically. Another version of this sees the finance provider making their offer to a supplier (rather than a buyer). So the finance might cover immediate payment against a wide range of invoices that the firm has issued.

Where does the cash come from?

In both cases, Greensill has to find the money to pay out up front to suppliers. Historically, the banks have offered this sort of service, because they have easy availability of money. But Greensill had to find a way of raising the cash. So they packaged up the offering into bonds, offering investors a decent rate of return, in return for providing the funding for the scheme. If you can turn over that funding 6 times a year based on 60 days payment cycle, making 2% each time, that is 12% – plenty to offer bond holders a decent return and make millions for Greensill too.

Just to make it even safer, the bonds were insured, so an investor knew that even if Greensill somehow didn’t get all the money owed to them back from the buyers, they were protected. So what went wrong?

The unravelling started with Greensill’s insurer refusing to continue covering that risk. The firm failed to find an alternative – so no insurance meant they couldn’t raise finance and could not continue to offer the service.  But the big unanswered question is this. Exactly WHY did insurance companies refuse to provide insurance? I mean, blue chip clients such as Vodafone aren’t going to renege on their agreement to pay Greensill (which for Vodafone is in effect simply the equivalent of paying their suppliers)?

So there must be more to it. Maybe Greensill has offered the service to buyers or suppliers who were less solid and secure than Vodafone, so the risk of default was greater. The position also gets murkier if you consider this possibility. What if the buyer / supplier relationship at the heart of the transaction was an inter-company relationship?  So one part of my business supplies another, and the supply side gets the payment from Greensill based on those invoices. But what if my sister company doesn’t really have the cash on the buy-side to then repay Greensill? It could be a way of raising money for a struggling firm, but maybe the underlying transactions aren’t even genuine?

One client of Greensill in particular has cropped up as a concern, and represents a pretty large proportion of the total business – do a bit of Googling and you can read more (it’s NOT Vodafone, I should stress)!  That might have got the insurance firms worried, to say the least. Then there was the alleged extravagance from Greensill. For what was still a pretty young business, running four corporate jets seems a little questionable.

So we will see what emerges in coming weeks, months and probably years. The reputations of Greensill, Crothers and Cameron are on the line, as well as potentially real jobs and businesses. There is nothing wrong with supply chain finance per se – but we might see the accountants and regulators looking harder at how firms report on their use of the technique.  And in the next edition of Bad Buying, will this go down as a failure, a fraud or a f**k-up? Time will tell.

(I asked CCS if they wanted to comment on this article and they said no).

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) is the central buying organisation for the UK government – particularly used by central departments, although any other public body (councils, hospitals, universities etc.) can use their contracts and frameworks too. It does some good work and employs a lot of hard working, smart procurement people. But sometimes it gets it badly wrong, as it has with the new management consulting procurement process.

Bids from potential suppliers are now in for the latest iteration of their Management Consultancy Framework, MCF3 as it is known. It is split into 10 Lots, ranging through general “business”, functional areas including procurement, and high-level topics such as “strategy”. Suppliers can bid for all or any of the Lots.

I have looked at the way the Lots and evaluation process are structured, and the way it is designed looks at first sight very strange. However, if you believe that it is aimed at meeting four key objectives, then it is quite sensible. Those objectives do not, unfortunately, include “delivering value for the taxpayer”.  

Instead, they appear to be:

  1. Make sure the big firms (McKinsey,  Deloitte, BCG, PWC etc) win a place on the more “strategic” Lots 2, 3 and 4 for strategy, finance and transformation work.  Why is it essential that these firms are successful?  Simply because Ministers and senior civil servants want to use those firms, and CCS itself relies on the commission it gets from sales through its frameworks to fund itself. If they weren’t available via CCS, budget holders would find another way to engage those firms and CCS would lose revenue.  
  2. Make sure those firms get onto the framework without having to offer particularly competitive prices, so they will be happy to put senior people onto government work without worrying about the rates.  
  3. Ensure that there are a large number of “SMEs” (smaller firms) who win a place on the MCF. Ministers can then supposedly support the small business agenda and announce that “over 50% of the firms selected are small firms”.
  4. But also make sure there is no need for any government department to actually use any of these small, lower cost firms.

So if these are indeed the objectives, how has CCS given itself the best chance of achieving this?

A Dodgy Price Evaluation

The way price is evaluated is a major factor here. So Lot 1 is general “business”, and up to 75 suppliers will be appointed to this Lot. Here, when the bidders “price” is evaluated, it is weighted at 90% of the total marks available. But the other 10% is just a tick box to say you will deliver the services (which is odd in itself – why would I be bidding otherwise?)

Price is calculated as the median of the prices offered for the 6 grades, from junior consultant up to Partner level. So basically, this is purely a price selection. The cheapest firms, which will be small firms that few of us will have ever heard of, will win a place. And because no-one has heard of them, and (in some cases at least) they are not very good, which is why they are cheap, they won’t be used much. But CCS and Ministers will have lots of SMEs on the list to boast about.

So then how does CCS make sure that the big firms succeed? For Lots 2, 3 and 4, price is only weighted at 10% of the total marks.  The rest come from essay-type questions in which the firms have to show extensive capability. There is plenty of scope for some flexibility in the marking too, and given the low weighting, price barely matters.   I would bet my mortgage that the “usual suspects” will all win places here.  

But just to make sure that those firms don’t have to worry about not making enough money, the price on which marking is based is not calculated as the average (the mean) of the 6 grades, which would seem to be a logical approach, or a weighted average rate based on likely frequency of use of each grade. Instead, it is the average of just two grades, the two “middle” ones (senior consultant and principal consultant / associate director). Actually, that would seem to be the same as the “median” price which is how Lot 1 is defined – it is not clear why different terminology is used.

So that means you don’t have to worry much about the price you put in for Partner. There is one more constraint in that for each grade, the price must be between 10 and 50% lower than the grade above.  But that isn’t too much of a hardship – for instance, you could put in this bid:

FIRM A

Partner                               £6000 a day

Director                              £3000

Principal consultant        £1500

Senior consultant             £1300

Consultant                          £1150

Analyst                                £1000

Your score would be based on the average of £1300 and £1500, so that is £1400, which is probably not too out of line with many bids. But once you win a contract, you can legitimately put your Partners in at £6K a day!

This is an “Illegal” Evaluation Methodology

There is also a technical/legal issue here, in that your evaluation score could be the same as another bid that puts in much lower rates for the top two grades (or indeed the lowest two), as long as you offer the same rates for those two in the middle. That seems to break fundamental rules of public procurement, that you have to make “value” your selection factor and you have to show you have a “fair” process.  So Firm B (below) scores fewer points in the evaluation than firm A, even though their pricing is much better value overall!

FIRM B

Partner                               £2000 a day

Director                              £1750

Principal consultant        £1500

Senior consultant             £1320

Consultant                          £900

Analyst                                £600

I can think of no reason why the average of the 6 grades has not been used – other than to help the big firms charge a fortune for their Partners. Unless I’ve missed something here, it feels like either a real error or there is something odd going on. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but you do sometimes wonder if there is some sort of plan for certain firms to suck as much money as possible out of the public purse at the moment?   

This is the Argos Catalogue, not a “Framework”

Finally, there is another somewhat technical issue, in that users of the framework who want to choose a supplier for an individual project should (to be legally compliant) in most cases invite all the suppliers listed in the Lot to bid. But if you have to ask 75 firms (Lot 1) or even 30 firms (Lots 2 to 6 ) to put in proposals, that is quite a workload to manage and evaluate.

So I suspect CCS assumes that many users will just choose their favourites from the list, even if this technically breaks the regulations. We’re going back to the old days when I worked in government in the 1990s and that was how frameworks were generally used. Budget holders just picked their favourites from a preferred supplier list. The approach didn’t deliver value for money for the taxpayer then, and it doesn’t now.

But again, having such extensive lists of suppliers ensures that there is plenty of choice on the framework for users, so CCS maximises its own revenues. I’m afraid that looks like a major driver here, along with keeping Ministers, budget holders and the big firms happy.

What Does the Lord Think?

I do also wonder what Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office Minister, thinks of this, or if he is even aware of what is going on. It was Agnew who wrote to senior civil  servants last September telling them to “rein in spending on consultants” and that Whitehall was being “infantilised” by their over-use. 

But when you see headlines in a year or two about “firms charging £6K a day for consultants”, you know why. Basically, the government, through Crown Commercial Service, has designed its procurement process to allow that. This is all very disappointing, given the undoubted talent of the people in CCS involved in this exercise.

PS  Buying consulting services based on a “day rate” model is almost always the wrong way to do it, anyway. More on that another day.

PPS There is no mention of “social value” in the tender either.

Bad buying takes many forms, and there is a risk we might see a new driver for poor procurement emerging in the coming months and years. The problems are avoidable, but we need to be aware of the risks.

Social value has become a very hot topic in the public sector in many countries. Recently, I wrote two articles (here and here) on the topic for our Procurement with Purpose website.  That is my other major interest at the moment, alongside “Bad Buying”, and we might consider those aspects two sides of the procurement coin. Procurement with purpose is all about how (if we are smart) the money organisations spend with suppliers can contribute to environmental, social and economic improvements that go beyond the specific contract. That is exactly the same as “social value” in the public sector.

So we are now seeing public contracting authorities incorporating social value factors with quite significant weightings in the evaluation process. Indeed, this is not just relevant to the public sector. Vodafone announced recently that they were going to use similar factors in their supplier selection models. Choosing a supplier is then not just about price, service and quality, but can also incorporate a range of other factors, from emissions, to employment of disadvantaged people, to support for local sub-contractors.

That’s fine, and we applaud the concept. But one fear is that we could see firms being selected based more on their social value offering than on their actual ability to do the job.

Scotland has led the way in many senses in terms of applying social value, and we interviewed one of the key leaders in that effort, Julie Welsh, for the Procurement with Purpose website a while back. But there is another side to the story. The Ferguson Shipyards case is an example of a firm that was supported with public contracts, in part with a view to supporting Scottish business and employment. Unfortunately, it appears that the shipyard may have been incapable of building the two ferries for which the government contracted, and costs to the taxpayer will run to over £100 million more than planned.

Reports suggested that the bid “was the highest quality bid received, in other words the highest specification, but also the highest price” of all the six yards competing for the job.  It seems likely that a high mark for social value contributed to the shipyard being the top score on “quality” and winning the bid – yet in fact, it failed to actually do the work, as well as being the most expensive bid. Without knowing the full story here, it does illustrate the need to maintain proper procurement processes and a commercially sensible approach. Suppliers must not win work on social value alone. 

That means social value weightings must be proportionate, and not outweigh what is the core goal in all public (and indeed private) sector procurement – finding the best supplier to meet our needs and provide the best overall value. Incorporating social factors in that “value” is fine, but it should not  come before the supplier’s capability to do the work properly and cost effectively.

Another key issue is how we can ensure that the social value offered is meaningful.  It should not become skewed by politics, or relate to factors that are immaterial to the contract or the needs of the buying organisation. It should also be capable of some sort of tracking and measurement to ensure the supplier does deliver on their promises; a focus on social value makes the need for effective contract management stronger than ever.   

There is also a risk that fraud and corruption could emerge as social value becomes more important in terms of winning contracts. I won’t go into that here, but it is discussed in my articles on the Procurement with Purpose website.

So all in all, incorporating social value or procurement with purpose factors into supplier selection  has the potential to be good news. On the other hand, if it isn’t handled with care, it could actually drive more “bad buying”. Our advice therefore is to implement with care and thought.

Just before the end of 2020, the UK government issued a Green Paper on the future of public procurement regulations post Brexit. I know, it sounds dull, but before you stop reading, this matters to every taxpayer and citizen in the UK. The government spends some £300 Billion of our money every year with suppliers, so getting that right has a huge impact in terms of value for money, the economy, as well as the services provided to UK citizens.

One of the themes in the Paper is around proposed changes to the way that unhappy bidders can complain about and challenge procurement decisions.  Without going into all the gory details here, pretty much everyone involved would agree that the current process is slow, cumbersome, and often leaves the bidders feeling unhappy. It can be a real problem for the buyer, even if they haven’t done anything wrong.

So this is an area where change is needed. But has the Green Paper got it right?

One controversial proposal is to cap the damages that a bidder can receive to one and half times the bidding costs plus legal fees, except in some exceptional circumstances. Critics of that idea say it will greatly reduce the incentive for a supplier to challenge, even when there has been bad or unfair procurement.

I have very mixed feelings on this issue, and there are some tricky balances here. In my Bad Buying book, I tell the story of a disastrous Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA)  contract.

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 … 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”.

You can’t change your mind about the rules once you get into the buying process.  As the judge said, 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 one bidding 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 judge found that the procurement did break the rules – an unsurprising outcome because it was one of the most blatantly unfair, incompetent tender evaluation processes I have ever seen.  The NDA agreed  to pay the firm (and their consortium partners Bechtel) around £100 million to settle the legal claim for their loss of profit on the contract. And an inquiry into the fiasco still hasn’t appeared, unfortunately.

Now that doesn’t really seem like a fair solution for the UK taxpayer, however bad the procurement process was. £100 million is a lot of money! But equally, firms should have the right to recover something – and probably more than 1.5 times bid costs – if they miss out on a contract because of incompetent, unfair or illegal procurement.

The failure to publish the report into the NDA affair is another common problem. In another case, Virgin Health received a settlement rumoured to be in the millions because of a botched procurement run by six clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Surrey, Surrey County Council (my home county) and NHS England. But the settlement and case details were subject to a non-disclosure agreement, so we never found out what happened, and that means other contracting authorities cannot learn from the expensive mistake.

So that was “Millions out of the health service and into the pockets of billionaire Richard Branson” – at least that is how some saw it, although Virgin defended their action.  Again, I would support the right of firms to challenge and get some reward if they are truly victims. But more thought probably needs to go into the Green Paper recommendations, and I would also make it compulsory for both parties to disclose full details of the challenge publicly. No more of these Bad Buying cover-ups please.

So what do we make of the UK schools lunch food box scandal? It all started with a mother posting a picture on social media of what she said were the contents of a food box that replaced her child’s usual free school lunch.

The contents weren’t very appetising, nor did they come close to being two-weeks’ worth of lunches. There was talk of this box replacing £30 worth of vouchers, another not very flattering comparison.

But there has been some confusion since then. The box was actually only a week’s worth of food, according to the supplier. Some suggested that certain pictures flying around social media didn’t include everything that was in the box. However, Chartwells, the supplier of the box and part of the giant Compass food service group did apologise and say that the box hadn’t met the required high standards, and committed to refunding the costs. The firm is clearly trying to recover from the bad publicity and is now including some additional breakfast provisions in the box, free of charge and the government has given an additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child.

It does also seem that the box was charged at £10.50, not £30, which is very different in terms of the value to the taxpayer and the recipient, and that includes food, packing and distribution. And whilst my initial thinking was that the specification must have been far too loose, or non-existent, it appears that the guidance for what should be provided is quite detailed and looks very appropriate. This is from the guidance prepared by LACA (the Lead Association for Caterers in Education), Public Health England and the Department for Education:

Food parcels should contain a balance of items from the different food groups, to reflect a healthy balanced diet for a child, as depicted by the Eatwell Guide and in line with the School Food Standards. Each parcel should provide: 

  • A variety of different types of fruit and vegetables, to provide at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables each day. These can be fresh or tinned but it’s best to source versions tinned in water or fruit juice, with no added salt or sugar.
  • Some protein foods (such as beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other non-dairy proteins), to provide a portion of food from this group every day. Meat and fish should be cooked (e.g. cooked ham or chicken slices) or tinned (e.g. tuna, salmon). Consider alternating between different protein foods to provide variety.
  • Some dairy and/or dairy alternatives (such as milk, cheese, yoghurt), to provide a portion of food from this group every day.

So let’s go back to first principles and consider whether we have seen “Bad Buying” here. The specification issue is a good place to start. Was this product specified properly? It looks like the answer might be “yes”, if we consider those guidelines. They give some leeway but are pretty clear.  

Then we can look at competition. A theme running through my book – and good procurement in general – is the power of competition as a lever for driving value and supplier performance.  Now it isn’t clear whether Chartwells won this business through a competitive process. I suspect there may be a framework with a number of providers approved to supply food boxes, as it appears that individual schools are the actual “buyers” here.  

We would hope there was some competitive process behind that – but the food boxes provided to people who were locked down last year were supplied by firms under emergency contract regulations which did not require competition, according to Spend Network and the Good Law project. Was it the same with the school boxes?

There is then the question of establishing value for money, which comes back to both the specification and the competitive process. But even if there wasn’t competition , it should have been possible to establish a “fair” price for the boxes, including the food itself, packing, handling and distribution.  I can’t say that £10.50 was a fair price – but it doesn’t feel too far out if it had covered five meals to the standard required in the guidelines.

The final and critical point comes down to supplier performance and therefore contract and supplier management. The furore all started with the pictures of substandard boxes hitting the media. Chartwell’s have mentioned supply issues; but the fact is, they should not have delivered boxes that did not meet the standards. Or, if there really was no alternative because of shortages or other supply issues, they should have explained that to their customers.

If there was a widespread and  deliberate policy of delivering less value than the specification required, then of course that would be a different issue altogether. But if this was more of a one-off, the schools involved should have been told that the product was not up to standard and that some reparation or mitigating steps would be taken quickly. That would probably have headed off the public exposure.

So this looks like a failure of supplier performance, possibly fairly isolated rather than endemic, which arguably showed some issues with contract management too. If someone on the buy-side knew of the issues, they should have done something about it, and if they didn’t know, there was something wrong with the relationship between Chartwells and the “contract manager”, whoever that was.  But I’m less sure that it was a failure in the core procurement process in this case.

Earlier this month the first Proctopus Christmas Party and Awards evening took place in the glittering surroundings of … Zoom.  Proctopus is an informal group, largely LinkedIn based, that has grown through this year to provide networking, career support and general community for around a thousand procurement professionals, many of them interims and “solopreneurs”.

Great credit is due to Dave Jones, Keith McCabe, James Meads and Graham Copeland, the main instigators of Proctopus, who have developed something really quite impressive and heart-warming in its goal to improve life for many who have found this year a bit of a struggle!  Anyway, I sponsored a prize for “ worst example of Bad Buying” at the event – the evening raised a couple of thousand pounds for good causes – and we had a live vote between three contenders:

  • UK government PPE procurement
  • “Other” UK government pandemic contracts
  • Forced Labour in Chinese garment manufacturing

All good cheerful stuff! It was a very close poll, but the “other” pandemic contracts won. I guess the audience of procurement folk really weren’t impressed with the scale and number of contracts awarded by the UK government without any real competition or process, covering communications and PR, consultancy, testing kits, track and trace process management … the list goes on.

Just to continue the theme of poor management practices, it has been impossible to follow the enquiry into the Grenfell Fire disaster without feeling strong emotions. Sympathy for the people who lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, but also anger – fury, in fact – and disbelief at the behaviour of firms and individuals who supplied the flammable cladding that caused the fire to become so tragic.

There certainly was some “Bad Buying” within this process too. The Kensington and Chelsea council and housing management organisation have not covered themselves in glory, and that includes procurement practices that clearly did not work well given the end result.

But there were supplier firms such as Celotex, Kingspan and Arconic, some of which blatantly lied, cheated, fiddled test results, and threatened those who raised issues. Frankly, it would have been hard for the best procurement professional to navigate themselves through the cesspool of appalling behaviour from too many individuals on the supply side. The building and construction regulators and authorities also failed in their responsibilities, it should be said.

And now there are also thousands of people – perhaps millions –  around the country stuck in flats they can’t sell because of fears about cladding. In some cases, they are paying huge amounts of money for work to be done or for “fire wardens” to sit around all day just in case a fire breaks out and their building’s cladding kills them.  No-one is taking responsibility for sorting this out, but you would have thought somebody was liable here. I also find it infuriating that our government can find £100 billion for a high-speed railway of doubtful value but can’t spend a tiny fraction of that to solve this problem (or indeed to fix Hammersmith Bridge – but that’s another story).

Anyway, that’s not a very festive story for what will probably be my last article of 2020. Whilst it has been very satisfying to see my book published in 2020, and many thanks to all who have bought it, that’s about all there has been in my personal positive column for the year.  So let’s hope there is more “Good Buying” in 2021, and that generally it is a happier year for all of us.

The NAO report on UK government procurement through the pandemic came out recently and we wrote about it here, focusing mainly on the PPE (personal protective equipment) issues it identified and analysed.

Today, we’ll look at some of the other non-PPE contracts that the NAO investigated. It’s worth highlighting that the auditors looked at 20 contracts and did not find problems with all of them by any means. So their list includes examples from the Department of Work and Pensions and different bodies within the health sector for instance, and in most cases, there were no serious issues identified.

However, the real villains sit in Cabinet Office, where three contracts were examined and each was a case study of (certainly) incompetent and (arguably) unethical procurement. That is ironic, as that Department also houses the HQ of the Government Commercial Organisation and Gareth Rhys-Williams, the government’s Chief Commercial Officer. His role is to promote better procurement across the whole of central government and his influence runs even more widely. But it appears to be a case of, “listen to what I say, don’t look at what we actually do in the Cabinet Office” if the NAO report is anything to go by.

The three contracts were for £3.2 million with Deloitte, the consulting firm, for support to the PPE programme. The second was a contract for a maximum of £840,000 with Public First, for running focus groups around the pandemic – although there were stories initially that there was some link with Brexit work too. Then the third was worth £1.5 million and was awarded to Topham Guerin for “publicity campaign coordination services”.    

The first problem is that in all three cases, the supplier was engaged and indeed started work some months before a contract was actually put in place, without any form of competitive process to support the choice of supplier. Work started in March but contracts weren’t in place until June or July.  

I suspect anyone reading this will understand why this is bad news; if you haven’t formally agreed what the supplier is going to do, how they will be rewarded, how any risks will be managed (from confidentiality to termination provisions), then you shouldn’t be starting the work really. We can only assume our old friend “urgency” is again the excuse here. But doing a few focus groups or a bit of publicity is hardly the same level of urgency as finding life-saving PPE.

Then we have faults that are familiar from our previous article covering the PPE issues in the NAO report. There was no documentation available in each of the three cases to explain why and how the supplier was chosen. The cynics amongst you might say the answer is clearly “because they were our mates” but I couldn’t possibly comment. Again, it is bad practice at best, and something more sinister at worst.

Then we have the conflict of interest issues. Topham Guerin and Public First have previously worked with Cabinet Office Ministers such as Michael Gove and advisers including Dominic Cummings. According to the Guardian, Public First “is owned by the husband-and-wife team James Frayne, previously a long-term political associate of Cummings, and Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Gove who co-wrote the Conservative party manifesto for last year’s election”.  But in that case, the NAO “found no documentation on the consideration of conflicts of interest, no recorded process for choosing the supplier, and no specific justification for using emergency procurement”.

So procurement process, policy and propriety in the Cabinet of Office, at the centre of government, has been corrupted. It appears that somebody senior – that could be a Minister, a special adviser, or a civil servant – either just engaged supplierd themselves with no procurement input, or told procurement to “JFDI”.  Either procurement is not in the loop and doesn’t even know what has happened till after the event, or the function and procurement leadership is too weak to say to the budget holder, “that’s not the way we should do things”.

In either case, it does not speak well of the Cabinet Office’s own procurement team, I’m afraid. Even more embarrassingly, we have the fact that the department is supposed to be showing the rest of government how procurement should be done. But Rhys-Williams, the government’s Chief Commercial Officer, is going to struggle now I suspect when he tries to tell other departments how they should be doing procurement. Yes, they’ll say, we’ll follow the best practice guidelines – just like your lot did on that Public First contract …

This week saw the publication of the UK National Audit Office’s second report concerning government procurement during the pandemic. The first, all about ventilators, raised some interesting issues (which I discussed on a Podcast here) but was not overly critical of the procurement process.

This new report is very different. It’s a strong but fair report, with plenty of detail and insight, and impressive given the pressure NAO must have been under itself (in terms of staff, politics, and time). In measured and factual tones, it exposes some very questionable practices, processes and actions taken this year, principally but not exclusively in terms of buying PPE (personal protective equipment).  It does not get deeply into PPE performance – there’s another report on the way shortly looking at that in more detail, apparently.

We wrote here about the VIP route for PPE, whereby firms with connections could get fast-tracked as potential suppliers, and the NAO report highlights just how beneficial that was for those firms who accessed that channel. They had a 10% chance of winning contracts, some (like the Ayanda Capital deal) for £100 million or more. Your chances if you weren’t on it were less than 1%.

I understand why there was a desire to look at more credible offers first, but the way it was done simply meant that it was literally a case of “who you knew”, not what you had done historically or were offering now.  That was clearly unfair and broke the fundamental principles of fairness and equal treatment that underpin public procurement.

Urgency was the reason why normal processes could not be followed, and I do understand that, but there were ways in which proposals could have been assessed without this blatant favouritism (and before anyone says, “so how would you have done it”, I have an answer for that – maybe a future article. Or Cabinet Office can pay me for a few days consulting and I’ll tell them. I’m a lot cheaper than McKinsey or Deloitte).

The failure to track where the 500 referrals came from in many cases (only half were noted) and apparent lack of awareness or concern about conflicts of interest also leave a bad taste here.  Indeed, a lack of documentation to support decisions is a theme running thought the NAO report.

Then, even after the NAO report, it is still not clear how the suppliers were chosen or the size of the contract determined. So there was a decent enough general process documented in the report for evaluating the suppliers and their offer in terms of credibility, but that doesn’t explain why Ayanda was given a £250 million contract while another firm might have been awarded a £1 million deal. Was it simply that they bought whatever the supplier offered once they got through the process? Was it first come, first served in some sense until the requirement was met – but that still begs the question, how did firms get to the front of the queue?

And remember, there were many credible suppliers complaining at the time that their offers of PPE weren’t even being considered. Did they fail simply because they didn’t know the right people? Did the team actually work through all the offers, or just focus on the VIP offers until they had ordered enough stock?

Given these issues, that lack of documentation around why suppliers were chosen for contracts is disappointing and unforgivable really, given the lack of competition and the size of many contracts. It broke the government’s own March 2020 Cabinet Office guidance as well, which said that buyers should keep good records of how and why suppliers were chosen.

We might speculate as to why it happened – incompetence? Arrogance? Lack of time to keep notes (with 450 people in the team, including highly paid consultants, that doesn’t feel like a good excuse)? Or corruption of some sort? The suspicion of bribery of officials remains, given this report. There must have been people who had the power to move suppliers to the front of that queue and we have no evidence of safeguards in place to ensure that wasn’t done for the wrong reasons.  

The lack of clarity on the “due diligence” process is also worrying – it wasn’t in place at all initially by the sound of it and then seems questionable, given some suppliers seem to have got through despite very dubious backgrounds. The stories in the press this week about jewellery manufacturers with “consultants “ in Spain being paid £20 million, or a young woman somehow winning a contract for almost a million pounds with no relevant experience whatsoever don’t fill us with confidence that due diligence was very effective.

Another issue was the buying of masks with the wrong specification. That appears to have been  a ”human error”, incompetence if we’re being unkind, somewhat excused by the time pressures. It has proved to be a very expensive mistake though – with the caveat that perhaps the masks can be found a useful purpose somewhere.

The report doesn’t really cover whether the prices paid were reasonable, so perhaps that will crop up in the next report. The margins being made by traders, middlemen, agents and spivs generally still haven’t been disclosed either, although the stories emerging such as the jewellery firm example seem to suggest some people made an absolute killing.

All in all, and even given the time pressures, this was not public sector procurement’s finest hour, I’m genuinely sorry to say.  In part 2, well look at some non-PPE contracts that NAO examined in the same report, and I’m afraid there is even more concerning Bad Buying to discuss there!