The consultancy group PwC was hit recently with a £7.5m fine over a string of errors while auditing the engineering company Babcock’s accounts, including creating a false record of documents for a sensitive government contract.

In one case, there was no evidence that PwC’s audit team had actually bothered to review a 30-year-contract worth up to £3bn, and in another, the team (none of whom spoke French) had failed to check a €640m (£570m) contract written entirely in French.  There was no evidence PwC tried to translate the documents to confirm the terms of the deal.  PwC’s auditors were also found to have “created a false record” of the audit evidence they had actually gathered in relation to a sensitive government contract.

Yet profit per partner for PWC last year was £920K  Are audit partners in the big firms really worth best part of a million a year? They are not entrepreneurs who have built a business, or indeed CEOs running a major organisation. And it’s not just PWC – KPMG was fined £14.4 million last year for its failings in the audit of Carillion, the construction firm that went bust in 2017. Second-tier firm Grant Thornton messed up over the Patisserie Valerie audit, after the firm collapsed because of alleged internal fraud in 2019.

Meanwhile in the US, Ernst & Young LLP (EY) EY got a massive $100 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and agreed to various measures to address ethical issues. The firm was charged for “cheating by its audit professionals on exams required to obtain and maintain Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licenses, and for withholding evidence of this misconduct from the SEC’s Enforcement Division during the Division’s investigation of the matter.”

What is wrong with auditors?  You would think in a well-functioning market, firms that behaved like this would fail and be replaced by better players.   But this is an oligopoly, and the barriers to entry are huge, and perhaps insurmountable. Ironically, the more rules and governance imposed by governments on auditors, then the harder it is for new market entrants to break in – we haven’t seen a significant new player really during my entire working life. The “switching costs” are high for clients too, and the big firms build very close relationships with senior corporate executives which helps to reduce the chance of competition.

The end result is that clients are paying too much, and often not getting good work in return. Although professional procurement involvement in buying these services has increased somewhat in recent years, frankly that does not seem to have had much impact. 

Close to home for me, the Surrey Heath Council accounts for 2019/20 are still in draft form and have not been signed off by the auditor, BDO.  In an election leaflet pushed through our door the other day, the ruling Conservatives say this – “FACT: Our accounts are ready but our auditors BDO continue to miss deadlines (including for Lib Dem councils). We are working hard to find new auditors and increase transparency”.

At least the draft accounts report is available for public inspection, which reveals that the author does not know how to use apostrophes  (“the Council has managed to deliver substantial saving’s on interest payable …)

But if this delay is down to the auditors, surely this is gross incompetence and mismanagement from BDO?  Is this not worthy of a wider barring of the firm from public sector work?  Or (I know this is hard to believe), might a political party be publishing misleading information? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question – but seriously, if auditors are incapable of getting a council’s accounts signed off three years after the end of the year in question, then they shouldn’t be doing this sort of work at all.

Not a Wetherspoons to be honest – the picture shows my favourite pub in the world, the Strugglers Inn in Lincoln

No matter how much we like to talk about sustainability, complex strategies and supplier relationship management, procurement has some basic elements that cannot and must not be forgotten.  A couple of recent cases act as a good reminder of that.

The first is a dispute between Wetherspoons, the leading UK pub chain with 843 branches, and AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer (they produce Budweiser, Beck’s, Stella, and also some beers that aren’t tasteless).  In November 2021, Wetherspoons agreed to make AB InBev their lead brewer (“preferred supplier”) of mass-market lager, replacing Heineken. ‘Spoons, as it is affectionately known, sells a good range of real ales and interesting cask beers but still offers the standard products too for the less discerning drinker.

But the dispute relates to disagreement over who is going to pay to install the T-bars (the branded fittings that include the keg beer taps) in all the Wetherspoons pubs. The argument has gone to the UK high court now, to decide which company should be responsible for carrying out the works needed to fulfil a contractual requirement for pubs to display a set number of AB InBev beers on their T-bars. Wetherspoon claims that both parties believed the brewer was responsible, in line with standard industry practice. AB InBev denies this, saying the work should be subject to a sperate agreement.   

For two such large and apparently professional firms to be arguing over this seems incredible really. Presumably there is a formal contract between them, and surely that would include a clear allocation of responsibility for costs associated with the change.  If that was not included in the contract, then that represents both Bad Buying and Bad Selling, I would argue.

So the first of today’s two key learning points is this. A contract must detail the responsibilities that each party is expected to meet in order to uphold the legal agreement.  Now in very large or complex contracts, there might be some minor details that don’t get captured up front, but in particular, any activities that have an associated cost must be clearly laid out. Otherwise, there is a high probability of arguments later, as Wetherspoons and AB InBev have discovered.  I know this seems obvious, and yet there they are, in the high court.

The second case is both serious and quite amusing. Metal traders at Stratton Metals sold 24 tonnes of nickel to a German customer recently. Nickel is a valuable metal, increasingly used in batteries for electric cars, so much in demand. It is sold as briquettes, packed into 2-Tonne sacks. But when the customer took delivery and opened the sacks, they discovered that half contained worthless stones rather than nickel!

This was highly embarrassing for the London Metal Exchange (LME), which facilitated the contract and is Europe’s only remaining “open outcry” trading floor – rather than sitting in front of computer screens, traders literally shout at each other to arrive at buying and selling prices. The LME also operates through a network of 464 warehouses around the world which hold metals in stock, although LME does not own or manage these facilities. The dubious sacks were in a Rotterdam warehouse.    

Nickel seems to be a bit of a favourite for dodgy dealings at the moment. Last month, Trafigura, the Singapore-based commodities firm, took a hit of $577 million to its accounts when it discovered a huge fraud involving missing cargoes of nickel – although it is not clear that is linked to this recent stones substitution.  Trafigura is taking court action against Prateek Gupta, an Indian metals tycoon, over the missing metal.

Anyway, we might draw two wider procurement lessons from this. The first is very simple. Always check that you have been supplied with what you have paid for. Actually, that is not too difficult when it comes to physical metals – it is considerably more difficult when it comes to complex services, for instance. But the principle and the risk for the buyer is the same. You said you would provide this, I contracted to pay on that basis, and you have delivered something else.

Secondly, the nickel case shows that trust is still an important part of doing business. Despite the comments above about the importance of a robust contract, even a good example will not always protect you against corrupt, criminal or fraudulent behaviour. Trust does matter; so if you have a supplier you can trust, remember that is worth quite a lot. Nobody wants to find stones instead of nickel in their warehouse, literally or metaphorically.

In many countries, the UK included, there is still a lot of admiration for German business and industry. The common view is that the German economy and the nation’s way of doing business generally is focused on organisation, efficiency and competence – and generally succeeds in terms of the results.  

That might seem to be a bit of a myth however,  if you read the story of Brandenburg airport, which featured as a major case study in the Bad Buying book. Years late and billions over budget, the story included dreadful programme management, terrible specifications for the airport and its internal fittings (such as escalators that weren’t long enough to reach the next floor…) as well as substantial fraud and corruption.

Now a recent report into the German military, the Bundeswehr, from Eva Högl, the parliamentary armed forces commissioner, suggests that that sector is also home to quite a range of shocking “bad buying” stories of bureaucratic incompetence and general failure. Högl says that the Bundeswehr needs 300 million to modernise properly and that at current rates of progress, it will take 50 years.

Högl is an ex-politician and travelled to 70 German military sites around the world and interviewed over 2300 people, so this wasn’t a quick management consultancy review. The Times reported that her findings included some almost unbelievable examples. A military hospital had no internet connection, so sensitive medical devices had to monitored manually. A microbiological laboratory was still using a dot matrix printer and an ancient refrigerator. The standard uniforms – introduced decades ago – are susceptible to “cold and damp”, which sort of negates the whole point of clothing, really!

Troops often had to buy their own equipment, and IT staff at one site waited months for computers. The bureaucracy is not just around procurement though – a sergeant in HR waited 3 years for a routine check on him to be caried out, during which time he was not allowed to access the HR systems or visit his own workplace unaccompanied!

We’ve featured plenty of stories about wasted money in the UK Ministry of Defence (and indeed the Bad Buying book has examples from that sector in several other countries ). But most of the stories related to major capital programmes; the Ajax armoured car, or the new aircraft carriers. An exception is the long-running and sorry tale of the army’s residential property estate.  However, the German report seems to suggest that the issues run across and through pretty much every aspect of  general management, including but not limited to procurement. 

Why is the situation so bad? Germany must have huge expertise in terms of management, including procurement and supply chain – you only have to look at their successful industries such as automotive and industrial equipment to see this. Why isn’t this translating into a professionally run military?

This isn’t just something to worry the people of Germany, of course. The country is a major contributor to NATO efforts, and that has been brought into the spotlight since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Germany spent some 1.44% of its GDP on defence last year,  less than the UK or France and well below NATO’s 2% target. That spend in Germany surely must be increased if western Europe faces a long-term stand-off (or worse) with Russia. But just as the UK’s Treasury (finance ministry) is wary of pumping more money into the Ministry of Defence until it shows it knows how to buy expensive military hardware better, we might assume that there are similar worries in Germany. No-one wants to throw money at an organization that does not appear to know how to run itself properly and efficiently.

So, the UK’s biggest case of Bad Buying for decades has hit the news again. The high-speed rail link (HS2) between London and “the north” is being delayed. The programme will slow down to spread the cost over a longer period. The line to Manchester will not open until at least 2043 and the new London terminal will also be delayed. So passengers travelling south will end their journey by being dumped in a siding near Willesden Junction*. Well, what a surprise.

The delays also kick the can down the road beyond the next election, so the government can continue making vague statements about levelling up and supporting growth in the north rather than just admitting they messed up. This is all stacking up to be a monumental waste of over £100 billion of our money.

I don’t claim amazing clairvoyant powers but since the beginning of the HS2 fiasco, I have predicted that it would cost far more than planned and would probably never be completed. I think it was on Twitter some years back that I got involved in an argument with a keen “train guy” who rubbished my claim that the eventual cost would be over £100 billion. And the business case was always dodgy – based on strange assumptions about how people use their time – but it became even more ridiculous once the working from home movement picked up steam during Covid. Back in September 2020 I wrote an article  – here is an excerpt.

“Construction of the HS2 high-speed railway network in England started formally last week. Some will be cheering – not me. At a time when working patterns have been changed because of Covid, perhaps for ever, and everyone is getting used to Zoom, Teams and the like, it seems crazy to be building new rail capacity so businesspeople can go to meetings. Other possibilities such as autonomous road vehicles make also make this very much a 20th century option.


HS2 is basically a job creation scheme, but an incredibly expensive one. The projected cost was initially £1-36 billion, but we’re now looking at £106 billion, incredibly.  The National Audit Office (NAO) report in January said this in summary. “In not fully and openly recognising the programme’s risks from the outset, the Department and HS2 Ltd have not adequately managed the risks to value for money”.

At the end of 2021, the eastern leg to Leeds got cancelled, and even the government had to admit that the business case was awful. As The Times said, “HS2 has long since ceased to be a project based on anything resembling a sound business case. The most recent business case published by the government, in June last year, awarded HS2 a benefit-cost ratio of 0.9. In simple terms, it will cost more to build than the advantages it bestows”.

Inflation is being quoted as one of the drivers for the delay – but ironically, delaying will only increase the cost further because of that very factor.  It is only the sunk cost fallacy that drives even the London-Birmingham leg to completion, and the political embarrassment if it were halted, after not just the money squandered but the impact on the countryside and wildlife through the construction to date.

In the meantime, much of the north of England suffers from dreadful public transport. A fraction of the HS2 budget could have made a real difference to local train and bus services, improving for instance the trans-Pennine routes which have been in a state of virtual collapse in the last few years.

The Times called for a “brisk inquiry into who got the country into this mess. Politicians, senior civil servants and the executives who have ridden the HS2 gravy train should be called to account”.  I’d also like to see a real analysis of why construction costs appear to be so much higher in the UK than elsewhere. There may be some genuine reasons – geographical, for instance – but I suspect there are other more addressable problems around the procurement process, risk appetite, the role of consultants and more. It would be good (but probably optimistic) to think that something could be learnt out of this disaster.

* Joke. Well, I think it is…

In part 1 of this discussion, we talked about the issues CIPS (the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) has faced in implementing its new systems. Moving away from the CIPS specifics now, here are some lessons related to this field, based on both personal experience and wider research.

  1. Nothing wrong with Oracle software, but small clients (and CIPS are small in the greater scheme of things for a firm like Oracle) sometimes struggle to get the attention that a Unilever, Barclays or Toyota might receive as customers of any software giant. In many sectors, including procurement software (which is not what CIPS has bought, I should say), I’ve always felt there is a lot to be said for smaller organisations choosing smaller suppliers.  
  2. Optimism bias is often an issue too. Suppliers are almost always likely to tell you that “yes, our product can do this” and “yes, it can be up and running in six months, no problem”. They might not be lying – but they omit to mention the conditionality. “Yes our product can do this as long as the data is in this format…” Or “yes, six months is feasible – as long as a, b, c, and d all apply…”  
  3. My understanding is that CIPS went for the “big bang” approach with the Oracle software. An alternative might have been to look at different aspects of the requirement – the student and exam booking element, core membership management, conferences and events, etc – and perhaps gone for a staged approach, with a more “best of breed with good inter-operability” approach to the software products chosen too. Whilst this might have looked somewhat more expensive and less rapid in theory, incremental approaches do tend to de-risk programmes like this.  
  4. The US example in Bad Buying mentioned in part 1 was undoubtedly made more complex by the involvement of several parties. I do understand why Oracle “don’t do implementation”, but immediately you have potential for dilution of responsibility when another party or parties are involved. Most senior buy-side people tell me they would always prefer “one backside to kick”, if you pardon the language. It’s not always possible, but having real clarity about who is responsible and accountable for what on the vendor side is vital. That’s true not just in technology, I should say, but in many other areas including construction, outsourcing projects, etc.  
  5. The Enigen statement (see part 1) is interesting in its mention of “evolving and additional requirements”. The very first chapter of Bad Buying is all about getting the specifications right. It’s the first chapter because it is the most fundamental cause of failure – if you get the spec wrong, nothing else matters. For complex technology projects, and that includes something like the Army’s disastrous Ajax armoured car programme as well as digital tech, changing specifications once work is underway will almost always cause problems. In terms of a software project, a client that starts saying, “oh, could we have that functionality as well please, sorry, forgot to mention it earlier…” is asking for trouble. Suppliers like to say “yes” of course, but not only can it lead to delays, it muddies the water in terms of accountability.  
  6. Software implementation that involves a systems transition – rather than a totally new system / functionality – is often difficult because problems with (for instance) transferring data don’t always come to light until you’re well into the project. It is easy to say that thorough due diligence before choosing a supplier or starting the programme is the answer, and of course that is important. But sometimes issues do emerge from the woodwork (or from the silicon, we should say) only once you are actually pressing that “go live” button!  is It is often a sensible move to look at cleansing data, perhaps using a real specialist in this area, as part of the pre-contract award market engagement process and planning.  
  7. On the client side, effective programme management is absolutely key. One would hope CIPS recognised that, but there might be questions now about factors such as the programme manager, governance, reporting, stakeholder and risk management. Now you can have a brilliant programme manager and still end up with a failed programme, but I’d hope the CIPS Board would be insisting on a detailed review of what has happened (if they haven’t done that already).  
  8. Expanding on that point, clients MUST understand they are reputationally, contractually and commercially on the hook for leading the implementation. You can’t just hand this off to software providers, SIs (systems integrators) or consultants. Programmes must have the right level of senior people involved and fully engaged from programme inception, and involved in governance of the project throughout. A lack of appropriate senior input is the root cause of many implementation disasters – leaders must ensure early decisions are made and do not get missed. Small issues can fester into multi-million pound disputes  requiring un-picking, and causing cost, delays and disruption.  

In November 2021, CIPS net assets (excluding the defined benefit pension fund notional surplus) were about £6 million. The accounts up to November 2022 should be out in the next couple of months – it will be interesting to see if the systems issues have visibly affected the financial position. For the sake of next year’s membership fee inflation, I hope not!

Anyone who has been around in business for a few years knows that there is nothing more nerve-wracking, tense and challenging then implementing a new technology solution in a mission-critical area for the business.  When I was researching my Bad Buying book, I found enough case studies on that topic to have pretty much filled the book with that alone.  

I did include a few examples, from different sectors and countries, from an Australian government payroll system disaster to the US drugs firm FoxMeyer, who went bankrupt after major problems with a project that included two software providers plus a systems integrator.

But despite the challenges, digitisation is essential. A recent article quoted Malcom Harrison, CEO of the esteemed Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, as saying this. “Whatever your corporate goal might be, a digital platform is critical to making more informed decisions”.

Unfortunately, CIPS itself has run into difficulties related to its own set of new digital platforms which it has been implementing over the last year or so, including its website, customer and membership systems. In an email to CIPS members recently, CEO Malcolm Harrison apologised for the inconvenience members and students have experienced over recent months in using the platforms.  I had seen some comments which were critical of the new platform around social media, and even a comment sent to the Spend Matters website. Several mentioned exam booking as a particularly problematical area. But clearly the problems are wider than that.

In the email, Harrison explained that CIPS chose tech giant Oracle as the software provider, after a thorough procurement process.  But Oracle don’t do implementation themselves – which is true of many major software providers. (Company valuations are generally higher for pure-play software firms than for combined software / services businesses). Instead, an Oracle approved systems integration partner, Enigen, has worked on that task. 

In the email, a joint statement from CIPS and Oracle said this:  CIPS, Oracle and Enigen are committed to modernizing the CIPS member and customer experience. Oracle has stepped in to ensure the project delivers on its full potential.”

The cynical might wonder how Oracle will “ensure” that delivery, given they don’t do implementation, and some might feel there is an implication there that Enigen are at fault, that Oracle having to “step in” to sort things out.  

A spokesperson for Enigen gave us this short statement: “This has been a complex project with many evolving and additional requirements. We are working collaboratively with CIPS and Oracle to create an exceptional digital experience for their members.”

We will come back to that statement in part 2 of this commentary – it is interesting to see that mention of “evolving and additional requirements”. That will no doubt set off alarm bells with readers who have experience of large software programmes! And of course, if Oracle has now “stepped in” to sort out the problems, it does beg the question as to why this level of integrated involvement from the firm was not already planned and present in the implementation programme.

I don’t want to be too critical here. To be honest, I managed to get through my lengthy procurement leadership career avoiding responsibility for many significant systems programmes. That was partly deliberate and partly luck (thanks to RBS for buying NatWest just as we were starting the mega-SAP programme … which RBS canned, incidentally). This is intrinsically difficult work – when I talked to a good friend of mine, one of the best complex programme managers I have ever met, he simply said, “it can happen to the best of us”.

But these events are not a great advert for the procurement profession, or for the firms involved, so hopefully the issues can be resolved quickly. I would also hope that CIPS will be open with members as to what has gone wrong. That could represent a learning opportunity that might help thousands of other CIPS members and their organisations, and CIPS has plenty of opportunities to feature this programme and all the experience gathered from it through its own channels. In that spirit, in Part 2 we will suggest some general good practice points (not necessarily linked to the CIPS case) when it comes to major systems implementation programmes.  

Imagine you are a Head of Procurement. Workload is growing and you are suffering from staff shortages. Your team can’t keep up. So you go to your boss with a proposition. You and a handful of the team are prepared to work a few evenings in order to catch up with the work. But the firm will pay your own limited company, Procurement Excellence Ltd, on an outsourced service basis. Maybe £100K’s worth or work should help get up to date.

It would be interesting to see the reaction of the firm, but I suspect the Head of Procurement might not be in their post for long after that. However, a parallel situation in the UK’s health service has led to hospitals contracting with their own medical staff in exactly that manner. And that cannot be acceptable.

A report in the Observer over the weekend revealed that UK NHS health Trusts are paying businesses owned by their own doctors to perform services, often using the Trust’s own facilities.

“At Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, three top surgeons including a clinical lead and a former clinical director are the owners of Fortify Clinic , a company offering “end to end” services to tackle waiting lists. The firm was paid £1.3m by the trust for work in 2022.”

In another case, a Sheffield firm owned by three consultants (doctors) was sold to a private health provider for £13 million after winning a number of these “insourcing” contracts. Trusts are facing long patient waiting lists and declining standards of care and public health in the UK following Covid. Strikes by nurses and ambulance staff don’t help either. So these private firms carry out operations “out of hours”, in the evenings and weekends, often using the Trusts’ own facilities and sometimes even some of their own staff. But the firms are paid as external suppliers.

One driver of this is the pension situation for high-earning individuals, including many doctors. The “lifetime cap” on pension pots means that a doctor might face a crazy marginal tax rate if they earn “too much” and their pension contributions breach the limit. But if the money flows into a business, it can be managed in a more tax-efficient manner, presumably.

Although the pension situation is pretty stupid, it does apply to everyone, not just doctors. The government should address it – but doing do just for medics would rightly bring cries of “unfair” from others in a similar situation. But the tax position is no excuse for hospitals agreeing to this approach, which is fraught with problems.

The conflicts of interest are obvious and significant. Trusts are awarding contracts – without competitive process, I suspect – to their own “friends”.  The decision-making “buyers” are almost certainly close to those benefitting from the contracts. There are also conflicts for the medics involved. There may be less incentive for instance to work harder, more efficiently or rapidly if you know you will get a substantial contract and more income if the backlog of work grows rather than shrinks. And are the hospitals charging these firms for the use of their facilities? They should be, otherwise external private healthcare providers could cry “foul” for unfair procurement.

I worked in a factory one holiday when I was a student, making insulation for pipes (I’m pretty sure it was asbestos, but that is another story…) Work pretty much stopped after lunch on many Friday afternoons, just to make sure there was overtime for those who wanted it on Saturday. I’m not suggesting a surgeon would do the same quite as overtly, but even if they resist the temptation, a conflict of interest has been created.

It is also just another step towards the privatisation of the NHS. What is interesting is that this is not being driven by some secret political strategy. It is being driven by incompetent political management, resulting by staff within the NHS taking action in their own interest (and sometimes that of the patient too) that is leading to a de facto two-tier health service. It has already happened in dental services; now we are seeing it more widely, as more and more people who can afford it “go private”.

If you see a consultant (doctor), and they tell you that the waiting list within the NHS is 6 months, but they could do it for you privately next week, in the same hospital, using the same excellent facilities, for a few thousand pounds, what do you say? But if the doctor’s firm is making large amounts of money out of this, can they really offer unbiased advice – “Doctor, will my condition get worse if I wait six months for NHS treatment”? What are they going to say?

Finally, are procurement teams involved with this at all?  I’d like to think some might have pointed out the st issues. If not, perhaps they should start now.

The UK’s National Audit Office recently refused to sign-off the accounts of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for 2021-22.

A lack of sufficient, appropriate audit evidence and significant shortcomings in financial control and governance” meant that NAO head Gareth Davies was unable to provide an audit opinion on the accounts of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).  Even taking the “challenging context” into account, Davies called the UKHSA’s inability to produce auditable accounts “unacceptable”.

UKHSA replaced Public Health England in October 2021. That was a challenging time because of Covid, but even so, the financial management of the new organisation appears to have been chaotic.  

UKHSA was unable to provide the NAO with sufficient evidence to support balances relating to £794m of stock, and £1.5bn of accruals from NHS Test and Trace, which were transferred from DHSC, or to support £254m of stockpiled goods transferred from its predecessor organisation, Public Health England (PHE). DHSC had not resolved issues with its management systems, financial controls and records, which the C&AG reflected in his report on DHSC’s 2020-21 accounts”.

Internal controls were lacking; there weren’t even effective bank reconciliations, something the smallest business would expect to have in place. “Shortcomings in the introduction of a new accounting system, combined with a reliance on temporary staff, meant that UKHSA was not able to provide the NAO with evidence to support key balances and transactions in the accounts”. So goodness knows what was happening in terms of errors or even fraud at that time.

Moving on to the wider Department, NAO “was unable to obtain the evidence needed to support £1.36bn of stock, due to issues related to inventory management”.

DHSC did not carry out end of year stock counts to check items including PPE (personal protective equipment) and Covid lateral flow tests, “as it was unable to access 5 billion items (which cost £2.9bn) that were stored in containers”. Whilst that might be excusable, or at least understandable, there was also a lack of adequate processes to check stock in warehouses, which is less so.

There was also a write-down of £6bn in terms of pandemic related purchases. £2.5bn of that is items already purchased but no longer usable, or where the market price is now way below what was paid. £3.5bn was a write-down on PPE, vaccines and medication which DHSC has committed to purchase, but no longer expects to use.

Taken together with the £8.9bn written-down in its 2020-21 accounts, over the last two financial years, DHSC has now reported £14.9bn of write-down costs related to PPE and other items”. 

And if you are thinking, well, at least that’s it, there is more salt to rub into the wounds.

DHSC estimates that ongoing storage and disposal costs for its excess and unusable PPE will be £319m. At the end of March 2022, the estimated monthly spending on storing PPE was £24m.”

So that’s £15 billion of taxpayer’s money gone. It has been in effect a huge transfer of wealth from the UK economy and citizens to a range of largely non-UK manufacturers and of course to a whole bunch of crooks, conmen, exploitative agents and middlemen, many with political connections, and the occasional genuine business person, all involved in the supply chain somewhere.  Every issue of Private Eye seems to have more examples – taken from the company accounts that are now emerging – of firms making huge margins, often 50% or more, on the PPE, tests and so on that were supplied during the pandemic.

We’ve discussed the reasons for this disaster many times over the last couple of years A failure to prepare and mis-management of the emergency PPE stocks; catastrophically bad demand planning which led to huge over-ordering;  incompetence in terms of drawing up specifications; a lack of even basic negotiation, cost analysis and supplier due diligence; political interference and nepotism; these drivers all feature. But as the NAO lays out the cold, hard numbers, we can say with confidence that when we construct the league table for the all-time costliest failures in UK public procurement, this is right at the top.

We started the New Year with an expensive error made in UK government procurement. Atos, the large French technology firm, were paid £25 million after the firm complained about the decision to award Microsoft the £850 million contract for a new Meteorological Office super-computer. Most of the cash was paid by the government’s Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy with the Met Office itself stumping up the rest.The language is often the same when this sort of case drops into the public domain. No-one is to blame. “There was no admission of liability”, said the government here.

That begs the question of course – why pay £25 million if you didn’t do anything wrong? Clearly, the government’s legal advisers must have thought there was a very high probability that Atos would have won if the case had come in front of a judge, and might have been awarded substantially more in damages.

The best description of the dispute I found is on The Register website. A fairly technical and technological issue around the specification of the computer and the solution proposed by Atos led to the French firm receiving a score of 0/5 for several evaluation questions and their bid being declared in effect “non-compliant”.  Then, as the Register reported, “It was also alleged the government was “disproportionate” in ruling its bid non-compliant without seeking further clarification on the architectural equivalence of the Atos system”.

Eliminating a serious bidder on a complex specification issue is rarely a good idea in my experience. You need to be absolutely sure the bid really does not meet your spec, and I would certainly have wanted “further clarification” from Atos before I took the drastic step of kicking them out of the competition. Poor judgement at the very least on the buy-side. Or maybe somebody just didn’t want Atos to win and was looking for an excuse to disqualify them (yes, that does happen…) 

There was then an interesting debate on Twitter about the case too. Duncan Jones, the highly respected expert who led who led the procurement practice at research firm Forrester until he “retired” last year, was rather angry about this money ending up with Atos. If a company is on the wrong end of a bad piece of procurement by a private sector firm, the disappointed bidder doesn’t get recompensed, he said. So why should it be different in the public sector, with our money going straight into the profits of Atos (and others).

It is a fair point. But my argument is that you must have some way for bidders to highlight when there has been incompetent or even corrupt public sector procurement. And if they have lost millions because of that, why shouldn’t they be able to get something back? Otherwise I do think we would see more nepotism and even criminality in public procurement, with politicians, advisers and public officials acting in their own interests rather than those of the taxpayer. If the procurement rules did not have the “teeth “ provided by bidders’ right to challenge decisions, I think we would see lots of cases that would make the UK pandemic PPE procurement experience look like a model of probity and effectiveness!  

However, I think Duncan made a fair point about how much compensation should be payable in cases like this. Working out “loss of profit” is an inexact art, and many suppliers make very low margin on big government contracts. So £25 million does sound on the generous side; but as I say, the lawyers must have felt the amount could have been a lot more if the dispute has continued.

At the early stages of development of the new UK Procurement Bill, I seem to remember that there were some major changes proposed around supplier challenges, compensation and so on. Introducing the scope for a less legalistic dispute resolution process was one idea I liked (some countries have a “procurement ombudsman” which is an interesting idea), alongside less scope for big supplier pay-outs. The proposals seemed interesting, but I believe most of those have gone now from the draft legislation, and the Bill is not going to drastically change the current situation. 

Finally though, the point to remember is this. If an unhappy potential supplier ends up being paid lots of money, it is ALWAYS because there has been a failure in the procurement process. Don’t blame the supplier – look at what went wrong on the buyer side. In the case of this Met Office supercomputer, it may have been something rather complex around the specification. But it was still a failure, another case of Bad Buying, and one that has cost us £25 million.

As we enter 2023, what do the prospects for Bad Buying look like? No doubt, we will continue to see regular procurement and contract related fraud and corruption. It will be greeted on discovery by the CFO explaining that “it was a very sophisticated fraud”. Usually, that is simply not true.  What the CFO (or CPO) means is “our processes were rubbish and wide open to criminal exploitation, but I can’t say that because you might question why I’m paid a six or seven figure salary to manage this shambolic process”.

Talking of fraud, the long-running controversy over PPE procurement in the UK will continue in 2023, with an announcement this week that the government is going to court over the supply of gowns from supplier PPE Medpro. One paragraph in the Guardian report on this leapt out at me.

“The legal claim states that the DHSC had paid PPE Medpro the full £122m for the 25m gowns by 28 August 2020. This was before any of the gowns had been inspected in the UK, and before all the gowns had arrived. Health officials rejected the gowns after a first inspection at the NHS depot in Daventry on 11 September 2020”.

I know the situation was desperate back in 2020, but to pay the full contracted amount before inspecting the product at all – it just seems incredible that any procurement professional would agree to that. Anyway, more to come on PPE this year, no doubt with more discussion of links to politicians, dodgy suppliers and billions of wasted money.

Moving on from PPE, the public sector (in every country) will continue to struggle with complex and technologically complex procurement in areas such as Defence and major IT programmes. We can hope that the UK Ministry of Defence sorts out the long-running Ajax armoured vehicle fiasco, another programme with potentially billions of pounds on the line.  The latest comments in December during a House of Lords debate seemed a little more positive but let’s wait and see. It’s not just the UK of course. Just before Christmas, we saw reports in the German press and on the Jane’s website about some of their army’s vehicles following a major training exercise.

Germany suspended procurement of the Puma infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) on 19 December after 18 of the vehicles broke down in an exercise preparing for their first assignment to the NATO Response Force Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in January, when Germany takes over command of the force”.

But the UK MOD seems to have issues with low tech procurement too. Recent reports suggest that the organisation still hasn’t got to grips with maintenance of military housing, a long-running example of Bad Buying on several counts. It started with a dreadful PFI programme that cost the taxpayer billions, and now the relatively new contract for looking after the homes is not delivering satisfactory outcomes for those who live there.  A contract management failure maybe?

Of course, it isn’t just the public sector that demonstrates Bad Buying, although the private sector is better at keeping failures hidden. I would argue that the professional services market (audit, consultancy, legal services) demonstrates a long-term failure of markets, procurement and buyers generally. Last month, the 100 Group, which represents the Finance Directors of some of the UK’s biggest firms, wrote to the “big four” audit firms to complain about rising fees. To which we might respond – well, you are the clients, why don’t you do something about it?

In truth, there is an oligopoly in the audit market. So the firms can get away with saying they are “investing in audit quality,” whilst in practice the extra revenue is channelled into paying their partners more and more each year – £1 million plus now in large firms. EY also increased the salaries of its junior accountants by 13% recently – nice for those people no doubt, but we all know that it is the clients who will pay for that generosity.

To some extent, legal service and strategy consulting has gone the same way – higher and higher salaries for firm’s partners in particular, whilst clients get exploited. Yet too many buyers are unwilling to use approaches that might mitigate cost increases, such as applying real competitive pressure, negotiating hard and skilfully, managing individual assignments more carefully, or looking at alternative suppliers to the top (and most expensive) firms.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with four thoughts for the New Year – maybe they could form the basis of some procurement new year resolutions for your organisation!

  • Check that you have everything in place to minimise the risk of fraud and corruption in your procurement activities. You can’t make it 100% criminal-proof, but you can make wrongdoing much more difficult by applying reasonably basic processes, systems and policies.
  • Competition is still the best mechanism invented to drive positive outcomes and outputs from suppliers and contracts. Use it well and widely.
  • Be a little cynical – well, maybe more than a little – about what suppliers promise you and the claims they make about their products and services, particularly in areas such as technology.
  • Organisations that are “good at procurement” don’t just focus on the skills and knowledge of their procurement teams – they understand that a wide range of people in the organisation need to understand their own role in the end-to-end process. They must also have the right commercial skills to play their part in procurement success.