Sadly, my mother passed away last month, aged 93.  A broken hip, covid and pneumonia all hastened the end, but “frailty due to old age” was probably a fair enough cause on her death certificate. So we have started the process of selling her property, a bungalow, in Sherburn, an ex-mining village near Durham. I met the valuer from the estate agent last week, and he talked about the market situation and what has happened over the last 18 months.

“When lockdown started last year, we had a team meeting”, he told me. “I said to my boss, this is going to be a disaster! No-one is going to want to move during a pandemic – prices are going to crash”.

Of course we all know that he was wrong, and my new friend was very thankful for what has actually happened.  He gave us a valuation some 15% higher than it would have been 18 months ago and is confident the property will sell quickly. (Just to make potential home buyers in most of the UK envious, we are still only talking £150K for a three bedroomed detached bungalow).

The point is that I don’t remember any experts predicting a property price boom in early 2020. Of course, the UK government helped with its reductions in stamp duty and now schemes to help first time buyers. But even so, there seems to have been a surge in people assessing their lives and homes. Many have reconsidered where they want to live, and the importance of having a garden for instance has gone shooting up the priority list. The valuer said that flats and apartments were not sharing in the bonanza in quite the same way, even larger examples, and he had clients who had been locked down in such properties who were desperate to get into something with even a small patch of land of their own.

It is not just property prices of course that have surprised most of us. Timber prices have risen sharply due to a triple hit of high demand, HGV driver shortages and climate crises, reports Supply Management.

“The Timber Trade Federation (TTF) said suppliers have faced a post-pandemic “surge in demand” for timber this year, leading to the average import price of softwood increasing by 50% between January and May – a situation which is expected to continue”.

This is another example of the power of markets to surprise us. Even the experts get it wrong – in fact, it sometimes seems that they get it wrong more than the non-experts! And that applies to the markets that we deal with as corporate procurement people too. No matter how much analysis you carry out, how many numbers you crunch, the variables that aren’t predictable can screw up the best-researched forecast.

That might be human behaviour, which largely explains the housing boom, or it could be the weather in the case of crops for instance, or political upheaval, or even a pandemic. The “unknown unknowns” or black swans can cause havoc with our plans, and even smaller issues can disturb specific markets.  In my book I quote the famous Rowntree Mackintosh cocoa market disaster, which cost the firm huge amounts of money when they got their forecasts wrong for that commodity’s forward prices.  

So we have to consider all the facts if we want to avoid market-related “bad buying”, and think hard about less obvious risks. In some cases, we can use advanced techniques such as hedging to protect against future cost increases, and mechanisms such as long-term contracts to guard against shortages (but of course getting locked in to long term contracts with unfavourable conditions is a risk in itself!)

Carrying out scenario analysis, which looks at various “what ifs”, is another approach that can be valuable. Certainly, considering a range of possible events and outcomes is better than simply working on the basis of a single prediction of the future.  But this is one of the most difficult challenges procurement faces and no one can pretend that it is easy to forecast what is coming next. Let’s face it, if it was, we would all have bought timber futures, a second property and a large stock of PPE back in 2019!  

I met an old friend – and consummate procurement professional – this week for the first time in several years. He is working in a very important and sensitive area of government, and this article is in his honour!

It is an extract from Bad Buying –  How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures Frauds, and Fu*k-ups, where I discuss an approach we’ve seen quite regularly in the public sector. Sometimes private sector firms make the same mistake, but often I have to say it is politicians who make the assumption that there will always be a supplier out there who can successfully deliver the services (or goods) they require. Unfortunately, that is not always true…

. . . . . . . . . .

“In the government sector, many failures can be tracked back to an assumption that there will always be a range of credible suppliers who can execute the contract, whatever the organisation looks to buy. But that may simply not be true. If the buyers’ requirement is unique, as government work can often be, a market may need to be created from scratch. Even if there is some capability already, a sudden increase in demand, from a major government programme for instance, will put pressure on the market and it may take considerable time to reach a viable state.

The UK government decided in 2013 to outsource much of its probation services work, despite warnings from experts that it would be “highly problematic”. The work included the management and rehabilitation of offenders, combining an element of punishment, such as monitoring the conditions of prisoners’ release, with the desire to reduce re-offending and help the offender make a useful contribution to society. The Ministry of Justice, then under the command of minister Chris Grayling, created 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) to manage offenders who posed low or medium risk, and in February 2015, the CRCs were transferred to eight, mainly private sector, suppliers working under contracts that were to run to 2021-22.

However, a National Audit Office (NAO) report from March 2019 reported that implementation was rushed, there was little of the innovation that was promised from suppliers and, while the number of offenders has reduced, 19 of the 21 companies ultimately involved failed to meet targets for reducing the frequency of re-offending. Probation services have clearly not been transformed, and in July 2018, the Ministry announced it would terminate its contracts with CRCs 14 months early, in December 2020.

Suppliers didn’t do well either. The NAO report estimated cumulative losses of £294 for the firms if contracts continued to the end date, and Working Links, one of the providers, collapsed into administration in February 2019 because of its probation contracts.  Finally, David Gaulke, by now the Minister in charge, announced in May 2019 that the contracts would not be offered to private firms – probation services was in effect re-nationalised after one of the highest profile UK buying failuresin recent years.

There were clearly many problems here, but fundamental is the issue of an entirely new “market” being created, without real understanding upfront of what the work involved, what capabilities would be needed by the winning firms, how the right commercial models would be constituted or how competition could be maintained and stimulated.  The organisations that won CRC contracts ranged from those with experience in vaguely associated areas (Sodexho was a catering firm originally) to new partnerships such as Purple Futures, which involved Interserve, an outsourcing firm which eventually entered administration in early 2019 after financial problems, along with charities such as Shelter.

“If you build it, he will come”, the tagline from the legendary film Field of Dreams, seems to be how some governments think when it comes to creating markets. And generally, some entities will emerge from the undergrowth, bidding to carry out pretty much whatever government asks them to  – drawn by the potential rewards, of course. But this does not create vibrant, sustainable, successful markets in itself”.


(This picture is not the Ajax vehicle we’re discussing here of course. It is my photograph of one of the earliest tanks ever made, now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln, the city where the world’s very first tank was designed, in a meeting room at the White Hart hotel).

The story of the Ajax armoured fighting vehicles (small tanks, if you like), bought for the British Army from US defence firm General Dynamics, looks like it will be a lengthy case study if I do produce a follow up to my first Bad Buying book.

Wasting a fortune as in this case is by no means a unique occurrence for the military, and we have seen similar disasters in many countries, as equipment turns out to be far more expensive than planned or fails to provide the capability that was desired. Sometimes, both of those failings are present. 

In the case of Ajax, the General Dynamics solution was chosen in 2010 and the contract agreed in 2014. The first vehicles should have been delivered in 2017, and the first British Army squadron should have been using them by mid-2019. However, problems emerged during testing. For instance, the vehicles were so noisy that crews were required to wear noise cancelling headphones and be checked for hearing loss at the end of operations.

The Times reported expert opinion that problems with Ajax were so serious, the government should consider cancelling the £5.5 billion deal to buy 589 of the vehicles. So far, the vehicles have cost £3.2 billion despite only 14 being delivered — all without a turret and of odd sizes.  A leaked report by the Government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which reports to the Cabinet Office, says that the problems with the Ajax vehicle do not seem to be manageable or resolvable within the agreed costs and timescale.

Recently it was revealed that trials of the Ajax armoured vehicle were halted from November 2020 to March 2021. Then trials were paused again in mid-June on “health and safety grounds” amid concerns that mitigation measures put in place to protect soldiers — including ear defenders — were not sufficient.  Excessive vibration and noise meant crews suffered from nausea, swollen joints and tinnitus, and soldiers were only allowed 105 minutes inside the vehicle, with a maximum speed of 20 mph (32 km/h).

Not very good in a real-life conflict, really. “Could you stop shooting at us, we have to let our chaps out for a bit of a rest now, they’ve been in there almost 2 hours!”  Amazingly, suspension issues also mean that the turrets could not fire while the vehicle was moving, and vehicles were unable to reverse over obstacles more than 20 cm high. I think even my Kia could manage that – we’re getting into the territory of “you have to laugh really, or you would cry”.

Another element of the Ajax story which would be amusing if the whole programme weren’t such a huge waste of public money came last week when the public announcement of the latest problems was made during the England versus Germany football match! Talk about timing a bad news story to avoid public focus.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, said that the vehicle’s weight had ballooned to 42 tonnes after many redesigns. It was now “heavier than any tank during the Second World War”, he said.  Some observers have suggested senior officers in the army may have hidden the extent of the problem over recent months to prevent it being axed as part of the government’s Integrated Defence Review.

But there is some debate about the underlying causes of this fiasco. There are claims that there was a “anyone but BAE Systems” view in the military when the supplier was being chosen.  Private Eye and The Times also suggested that General Dynamics just said “yes” to everything the Army wanted, without really being able to provide it. “They went to General Dynamics and said ‘Can you do it?’ and they said yes”.

But others see the fault sitting with the military, with the specification being continually changed and made more complex over the years, leading to that issue with the weight of the vehicle, as Ellwood pointed out.

Bernard Gray, who was Chief of Defence Material from 2011-16, has published some interesting comments on Twitter recently.  He suggests that the initial contract was fine, which might be understandable as his team must have been very involved in that phase. But changes to the specification driven by the Army after contract signature, on what should have been a fixed price, fixed spec contract, are behind the problems, he suggests. Gray said this;  “I don’t think that’s true if the product was not fit for purpose. The problem was, how much had MoD deviated from the 2014 contract by 2019… that’s what we need to explore”.

If that diagnosis is correct, it may prove hard to recover money from General Dynamics. If the firm has simply done what it was asked or required to do by the customer, we can hardly blame it if the end product doesn’t work.

Another thread on Twitter related to the decision by the Australian army not to select the Ajax product. Apparently, that was because when they took up references from the British army in 2019, they were told to avoid it.

It is all a huge mess anyway, not just financially but also operationally, as this is a pretty essential and fundamental piece of kit for our soldiers. As usual, the taxpayer takes the hit, and as usual we will never find out exactly who should carry the can for this in the military, civilian MOD or political worlds, or indeed on the supply side. Will anybody get fired? You must be joking. Strangely enough, it always seems impossible to place the responsibility for Bad Buying in the public sector on anyone in particular.  

Sometimes Bad Buying stories are amusing, or we can learn from events without feeling too emotionally involved. But reports last week about the procurement and management of children’s care services brought just rage and sadness.

These are children who don’t have parents to look after them, or have been placed in care. Many have behavioural issues, or addiction problems.  So keeping them safe and providing an environment where they can learn and thrive is far from easy, and perhaps that is why public sector bodies (local councils) have over the years increasingly outsourced provision of residential facilities and care. The work goes to private sector firms, ranging from very small (individual foster parents at the extreme) to larger firms, including those funded or owned by private equity.

The Times reported problems both with the performance of some firms plus what looks like a rip-off in terms of the prices charged. The average cost per week is now £4,130 per child, and there is evidence that through the pandemic, new “get rich quick” firms have come into the scene, providing poor care and facilities but taking advantage of the lack of physical inspections by the regulators.

The Times highlighted cases reported by Ofsted (the regulator):  

  • Children were able to steal knives from one home and take them to school.
  • Staff dropped a young person off at the home of a drug dealer despite being warned by police to avoid the area; at another run by the same company a child was discovered riding a bike on a motorway hard shoulder.
  • A young person at a third home was found weaving through traffic and high on drugs. On another occasion inadequately trained staff locked themselves in a car when a resident became violent. One of the three people who set up the home was a scaffolder prosecuted for having an eight-inch knife behind the sun visor of his van.

A government review of children’s social care services is underway, and an interim report was also issued last week. The review is being chaired by Josh MacAlister, the founder of Frontline, a charity that has developed a scheme for fast-tracking bright graduates into children’s social work – similar to the Teach First scheme in the education world. I have worked with Frontline a number of times, and MacAlister is one of the most impressive people I have ever met. If anyone can address these seemingly intractable issues, it is him.

However, I did smile at his comment last week (made in a conference speech) when he appealed for large firms to moderate their prices and margins.

“I would implore those of you who are owners of private children’s homes, particularly large groups, to act with responsibility to bring down costs and reduce profit-making and to be responsive to the needs of children. It is better that plans to make this happen are started now”.

Asking firms with private equity behind them to reduce profits is like asking a spider to stop making webs or a fish to stop swimming.  Josh, it’s what they do. I think we can confidently predict that his appeal will have no effect at all.

In his speech, MacAlister also cited figures published in 2020 by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC) and Revolution Consulting, which identified a 40% rise in independent children’s home prices from 2013-19. The 20 biggest independent children’s social care providers were making combined annual profits of £265m, at a margin of 17.2%. However, the private sector argues it provides care that is as good as that provided by councils directly, at a lower cost.

Coming back to Bad Buying though, this strikes me as both market failure and a failure of procurement strategy. When we look at which services can most sensibly be outsourced, we should consider factors such as:

  • Are the services strategically critical for our organisation?
  • Is there a healthy, dynamic market out there to buy from, open to new entrants?
  • Could we move our business between suppliers or back in-house if we needed too?
  • Will there be a reasonable power balance between us and our suppliers, enabling us to exert  some negotiation leverage?

If we carried out this analysis on these services, I’d argue that this is basically not a suitable spend category to outsource. It is very sensitive, it is difficult to switch suppliers, with limited supply in some parts of the country. Once a child is being cared for, the provider has the upper hand in negotiations, as changing suppliers is difficult.  

I don’t know whether there has ever been a national procurement strategy here, or whether every council has developed its own. I suspect the current situation has just evolved, and now we have the taxpayer spending £500,000 a year per child in some cases, and not even being sure the service is up to scratch.

There is also a market study into children’s social care provision underway, led by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Maybe that – as well as the MacAlister review – will lead to a new approach to the procurement issues around children’s care. This really does need some serious thought and a national strategy. That doesn’t necessarily mean big national contracts, I would add, but it does need considering strategically, rather than dozens of individual councils trying to do their best individually.

The UK National Audit Office has published a report titled “Initial learning from the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. It draws on the various reports NAO has conducted over the last year or so, including those related to ventilator and PPE (personal protective equipment) procurement, and covers quite a range of topics including risk management, data, workforce issues and – most relevant to our interests – “transparency and public trust”.

It is timely, not least because the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor UK are currently in the midst of a court case concerning PPE procurement. Those organisations are challenging the way government awarded contracts to suppliers, with a particular focus on a handful of suppliers including Ayanda Capital and Pestfix. They also want the government to publish the full list of suppliers and (where relevant), disclose who put them forward to the “VIP list” that gave firms accelerated access to the procurement process.

Some startling information has already been disclosed in the court case. For instance, it appears that Ayanda did NOT pass the initial “due diligence” process, but somehow were still awarded contracts worth over £200 million. It is also clear that influential people were badgering the professional procurement staff to favour certain firms. 

In the case of Pestfix, evidence suggests that their executives told the government buyers that some of the payment was being used to bribe people in China to make sure supplies got through to the UK.  (Pestfix denies this but the emails seem pretty clear!) I’ve always suspected that was one reasons why the government didn’t want to deal directly with producers but involved agents and middlemen. Ministers and officials didn’t want to get their own hands dirty in what was a vicious battle to secure supply at the height of the shortages.

It is well worth keeping up with the developments in the case, but let’s revert to the NAO report and transparency. One of the main NAO learning points is the importance of transparency and clear documentation to support decision-making when measures such as competition, are not in place.

In more detail:

Transparency, including a clear audit trail to support key decisions, is a vital control to ensure accountability, especially when government is having to act at pace and other controls (for example, competitive tendering) are not in place. On the ventilator programmes, we found sufficient record of the programmes’ rationale, the key spending decisions taken, and the information departments had to base those on. However, in the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other goods and services using emergency direct awards during the pandemic, we and the Government Internal Audit Agency found that there was not always a clear audit trail to support key decisions, such as why some suppliers which had low due diligence ratings were awarded contracts”.

That due diligence issue relates back to Ayanda (and others) of course. As well as the lack of documentation, government was also slow to publish information.

“… many of the contracts awarded during the pandemic had not been published on time. Of the 1,644 contracts awarded across government up to the end of July 2020 with a contract value above £25,000, 75% were not published on Contracts Finder within the 90-day target and 55% had not had their details published by 10 November 2020. The Cabinet Office and DHSC acknowledged the backlog of contract details awaiting publication and noted that resources were now being devoted to this, having earlier been prioritised on ensuring procurements were processed so that goods and services could be made available for the pandemic response”.

We can have some sympathy here, as staff were under huge pressure, but given the large number of people (many of them expensive consultants) working on PPE procurement, it should have been possible to do a bit better than this.

In terms of transparency, I recently wrote a briefing paper with the Reform think-tank, titled Radical transparency: the future of public procurement.  The message is that the time is right for a step-change in transparency around public sector procurement. That is not just about public trust, important though that is. I believe the even bigger issue is that buyers, budget holders and commissioners in the sector have very limited visibility of what each other are doing.

That means knowledge about great ideas and amazing supplier performance is not shared – and neither is the learning when something goes wrong. Radical transparency is the answer. The recent government Green Paper on public procurement makes a few comments in this direction but really does not go far enough. As soon as you see the rules on Freedom of Information quoted as a basis for disclosure you know there is no intention of getting anything really interesting into the public domain!

If you have a few minutes and you are at all interested in public procurement, do have a look at the Reform paper. I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on the concept that transparency can be an effective antidote to public sector Bad Buying!  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.