Bad Buying was published last week, and whilst there wasn’t exactly a rush of media appearances, it was reviewed in the Times on Saturday (behind the paywall unfortunately).

The reviewer (Robert Colvile) enjoyed it, although he found it annoying / depressing that governments seem to make the same mistakes time and time again when it comes to spending public money. Well, yes, I’d agree of course, that being one of my reasons for writing the book! He also picked up on one important point that is mentioned in the book but perhaps deserves more focus.  As Colville put it in his review,

“And the mistake was usually pretty elementary (as a rule, anyone who talks about how their organisation was victim to a “very sophisticated” gang of thieves is telling porky pies: far more likely is that there was a failure to attend to the absolute basics).”

This is so true. We see it almost every time there is a fraud case – the organisation that has lost out claims it is the cleverness of the fraudsters, not the stupidity of management that is to blame. That is the case even if all the fraudsters have done is phoned up the finance department and said “hello, this is IBM here, we’ve changed our bank details, please can you pay our outstanding invoices now to this new account”. Very sophisticated…

But it is  certainly not just the public sector that gets caught out. EssilorLuxottica, the worlds leading lens and eyewear firm, was the target of a 190 million euro ($213 million) fraud at one of its factories in Thailand. At the end of last year, the firm announced that it had fired employees associated with the incident (well, you would, wouldn’t you) and was looking to recover the money.

An intelligent guess would suggest that this was a “fake supplier” fraud, where money was paid under the authorisation of someone internally to external firms that were controlled by the fraudsters.  Those firms would not in reality be supplying anything to EssilorLuxottica of course, and by the  time the fraud was spotted, those bank accounts would have been closed and the cash long since extracted.  But this was a huge amount of money to disappear from a single factory in Thailand – it  sounds like it could be equivalent to the firm’s entire annual revenue in that country.

Assuming that was the nature of the fraud, how on earth could such large sums of money be extracted without anyone noticing? What were the policies in place and processes to check up on those new “suppliers” and their legitimacy? Who was allowed to approve high value payments?  Did the firm outsource any part of the payment process to a third party services provider? (That can sometimes lead to weaknesses in the process and less focus on what is going on).  Maybe there was some sophistication here in the fraud, but it really does smack of poor internal management and controls.

Anyway, that story is really told to demonstrate that it is not just the public sector that can waste money and fall down on basic anti-fraud processes. I’d suggest that every procurement or finance leader and every Board should consciously think about this question – “if I wanted to defraud my organisation, how would I do it”? 

Think  through the different options and potential points of weakness, and evaluate whether there are processes, checks or policies in place that would stop you getting away with it. If the answer is “no”, then either tighten up quickly or accept that you might be the next person waffling on to the press about “sophisticated criminals”!  Personally, I would also fire the CFO if such a basic fraud was committed on his or her watch.

The Bad Buying book might be useful too if you are concerned about these issues.  It contains seven key anti-fraud principles, with some practical and clear advice on how you can at the very least reduce the chances of fraud and corruption affecting your organisation.

It is now just two days to publication of Bad Buying. So today, let’s focus again on the second section of the book, all about fraud and corruption. Whilst I really enjoyed writing and researching this section, it was also somewhat annoying and frustrating. That’s because so many of the cases featured could have been stopped, avoided or at least made a lot more difficult if certain basic processes and policies had been in place.

How was Fat Leonard allowed to corrupt so much of the US Navy, to the point where hundreds of officers (up to Admiral level) have ended up in court? Even when his firm did not legitimately win contracts for servicing ships in south-east Asia, the ship commanders used his firm anyway.

So why was no-one checking up on contract compliance  when the firms who should have got the business didn’t? Why did no-one look at spend analysis and ask questions about just how much money and share of business was going to Fat Lenard’s firm?  And how do you end up with a situation where several whistle-blowers raised the issue, but so many people were corrupt (including some recipients of whistleblowing information) that it still carried on for years?

Or for something a little less exotic, consider the legendary Sainsbury’s potato fraud. The UK supermarket group was defrauded for years by collusion between the buyer and a key vegetable supplier. The buyer agreed to pay over the odds for all the potatoes bought from that firm and in turn took kickbacks and had expensive meals and trips with the sales director. But why did no-one spot that Sainsburys were paying more than the should? Why was there no regular open and competitive process to source potatoes? Why was the decision making resting apparently in one man’s hands?

So I’ve laid out seven key anti-fraud principles in the book, and I’d seriously recommended that everyone should consider how their own organisation scores on these. Some seem obvious until you actually look at how many organisations really adhere to the principle.  For example, it is vital that all entities to which money is paid must be verified and authorised.

We need to make sure the order and the payment isn’t going to a fake or dummy company, perhaps even one controlled by the order placer (the internal fraudster) or their associates (when there is internal / external collusion).  That “supplier” may still supply the goods and services required, or something approximating to them, with the fraud being the quality or quantity of what is provided. Or they may supply nothing, relying on no-one other than the fraudster realising that nothing has actually been received. Or perhaps the time-lag before the discrepancy is noticed is enough for the fraudster to safely disappear, before anyone asks where those 5000 laptops that have been paid for have got to.  

So we must check that the entity we’re paying money to is genuine. Is it a registered company with a trading history? Does it have a track record? Who are the Directors? You really need to understand who your suppliers are, and identify any that aren’t genuine.  

That’s enough on fraud for now, and tomorrow I’ll look at the final chapter in the book where I lay out some thoughts on how you can drive “good buying”.  The book isn’t all case studies of failure – there is advice too, because the aim is to educate and inform, as well as to entertain and to shock people a little!    

So you might still get delivery of the book on publication day (Thursday) if you order now – check out the links here. (In fact, one friend tells me his book arrived yesterday). There is also a podcast now (“Peter Smith’s Bad Buying podcast”) and the first two episodes, around 15-20 minutes each, are available on most podcast platforms.

There is even a Bad Buying playlist on Spotify (all my section titles in the book are also song titles …) It is a “diverse” playlist, as my daughter described it, but I’ll take that as a compliment!  You can make your own judgment on that.

It is now just three days to publication of Bad Buying. So today, let’s move on to the second section of the book, all about fraud and corruption.

This was really enjoyable to write to be honest, even though we should be horrified at some of the stories. It was fascinating to see how frauds range from the mundane and often quite sad in terms of why the perpetraotrs do it ad the consequences, to those that have national or even international implications at the highest level.

One very ancient type of fraud is the cartel, although it is interesting to note that cartels weren’t always seen as a bad thing – and indeed, even today, we have OPEC, the oil cartel. But the medieval guilds were set up in part to operate as cartels and restrict the entrance of new suppliers into a market. But in modern times, we’ve seen illegal cartels in all sorts of areas, from international marine hose supplies (no, I’d never heard of marine hoses either), to construction firms in the UK public sector market, to brewers in India.

Many frauds relay on the buyer being able to ”fix” the supplier selection. In fact, that is a necessary condition in order to extract money though mechanism such as inflating invoices, over-billing or under-delivering. If a buyer and a supplier are going to collude – as they did in the case of a famous Sainsbury’s potato fraud – first of all, the buyer has to make sure that the supplier is chosen or wins the competitive process.

There are some rather ingenious examples of how this has been done. For instance, in the UK health service, a property manager manipulated the way that cost quotes were provided by suppliers to favour a relative’s decorating firm.  Bidders were asked to quote for different jobs, but work that actually was rarely needed was given a high weighting in the evaluation, and his relative bid low on those jobs, to score lots of points. But the jobs that actually would be frequently required were given a low weighting in the evaluation so his relative could bid high on those and still win the tender, knowing that he would then make significant money on that work. Very clever!  

That story points out one of the basic mitigations you can take to guard against fraud. Don’t leave any key parts of the process to a single individual, whether that is designing the evaluation process, marking the bids, negotiating prices… you can’t rule out collusion, but many of the examples I’ve seen are driven by just one personal internally. Putting a barrier in their way by taking away ability to act individually makes fraud much more difficult.

If that NHS example is small-scale, but interesting, at the other extreme we have the Petrobas / Odebrecht scandal in Latin America. At first that looked like a simple case of a large construction supplier paying bribes to win work from the Brazilian government-owned oil firm, Petrobas.  But as investigations went deeper, they exposed a vast network of corruption, with buyers paying over the odds to fund not just individual bribes but political donations too – and those political parties then appointing their stooges into positions in Petrobas where they could demand and get even more bribes!  Later, the related scandal spread to Peru, Mexico and further, leading to arrests and even the suicide of a leading politician accused of corruption.

That’s where the idea that a few more people knowing what’s going on breaks down. If corruption really becomes endemic in an organisation, it can be very hard to eliminate. Luckily, that doesn’t happen too often …

Anyway, there is still time (just) to order and get delivery on of the book on publication day – check out the links here. There is also a Bad Buying podcast now (“Peter Smith’s Bad Buying podcast”) and the first two episodes are available on most podcast platforms. There is even a Bad Buying playlist on Spotify (all my section titles in the book are also song titles …) It is a “diverse” playlist, as my daughter described it, but I’ll take that as a compliment!  You can make your own judgment on that.

The arrest of Steve Bannon, President’s Trump ex-adviser, hit the headlines this week. Along with several other men, he is accused of siphoning off funds that were given to a charity which sought private donations to support the building of the Trump-promoted wall (fence, barrier, whatever) between Mexico and the USA.

Without getting into the mentality of the donors who would give their hard-earned cash for that cause, the case does point out the difficulties of knowing exactly where you money is going when you had it over to any charity.  There have been many examples over the years of charities that do genuinely support good causes, but appear to be just as interested in spending money on fancy offices and big salaries for executives.

Even an organisation as reputable as the Australian Red Cross ran into controversy recently when it had to defend its decision to spend up to 10% of bushfire relief donations on administration costs. That doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me, but in the past, it had promised to put 100% of all money raised directly to a cause.

Then there are the actual fraudulent “charities” that act as a front for criminal activities. For instance, four men were found guilty recently of fraud in the UK when they expropriated over £500K of donated money rather than using it for genuine purposes.  Collectors in camouflage trousers and “Save Our Soldiers” shirts rattled collection tins and conned people at railway stations into thinking they were giving to support disabled troops. But the  money went to fund the lifestyles of David Papagavriel, Terence Kelly,  Ian Ellis and Peter Ellis. That’s the reason I never put money in collecting tins if I don’t know the charity, by the way, even if it looks like a great cause.

The third type of charity-related fraud comes when a charity itself is the victim. Every organisation that sees large amounts of money flowing through it can be a target for what I define as “procurement related fraud”, and charities are no exception. There are some interesting examples of this in my new book, Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups (to be published by Penguin Business on October 8th).

The fraud may originate from outside the organisation, but often there are insiders involved, or in some cases it can be a purely internal affair. For example, one story in my book covers the exploits of the CEO of an education charity, Philip Bujak. He was sentenced to six years in jail in 2018 at Southwark Crown Court in London for swindling some £180,000 out of his organisation. Using a company credit card, false invoices to Fake “suppliers” and other routes he got the charity to fund his honeymoon, and family events at hotels. One bill for a “charity conference” was really his mother’s 80th birthday party, and he was also keen on buying and restoring paintings.

So don’t think that everyone who works within a charity is automatically a good person. There can be the odd bad apple, which means that charities (like every other organisation) need to take strong anti-fraud measures to protect against internal or external villains. I haven’t got the space here to go through all those suggested steps, but my book goes into that in more detail, with seven key principles to avoid buying-related fraud and corruption listed and explained.  And we will come back to those here at a later date as well.

Meanwhile we will watch the Bannon case with interest …

All over the world, medical staff have struggled to find enough PPE (personal protective equipment) to meet their needs and protect themselves in a time of pandemic.  The problems have extended out and affected other users too, in care homes, local government, the police even.

That has led to some buying activities and processes that were far removed from the usual formal public procurement approaches. In the UK, we have seen huge orders placed with firms that normally would not have made it beyond the first basic company checks. Money was paid up-front in some cases, something else that would never happen in normal times.

We’ve been hesitant to call this Bad Buying  given the emergency situation, although at time of writing, there is some evidence that the UK may now have over-ordered at the top of the market and paid more than perhaps we needed to. But let’s reserve judgment on that for now.

But as well as issues of competence, there have also been accusations of bias, nepotism and even fraud. Sometimes those are far-fetched; the fact that the CEO of a small firm supplying PPE once attended a Conservative Party charity dinner should not mean his firm can never be a government supplier again!

In some countries however, the issue has gone much further. Recently, the BBC reported on the arrest of the Zimbabwean Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo, as “the government came under pressure from the opposition and on social media over a scandal surrounding the procurement of coronavirus tests and equipment”.

Moyo faces charges related to a $20 million contract for PPE and other virus-related kit awarded to a firm registered in Hungary, allegedly made without going through the proper procurement processes.  The company, Drax Consult, was only registered two months before the contract award, and the firm’s representative in Zimbabwe, Delish Nguwaya, has also been arrested. Africa News reported that “local journalists exposed how Moyo allegedly chose the company to sell medical supplies to the government at inflated prices that included face masks for $28 each”.

The President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has made much of his anti-corruption drive but one of his sons was forced to issue a statement denying a link to the company after pictures emerged of Nguwaya with the president, his wife and sons at several events. Meanwhile doctors and nurses have been on strike demanding to be paid in US dollars as inflation is running at over 750% and incomes are virtually worthless in this struggling nation.

Coming back to the UK, the recent controversial government contract for market research (running focus groups) actually seems to me more dubious than most of the PPE buying activity. Giving a firm with “conflict of interest” type links to adviser Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove a contract for almost £1 million with no competition simply seems wrong. The “urgency” claim made in that case does not hold water really when a quick competition could have been run in days. But at the moment, the British people don’t seem inclined to riot in the streets or start arresting Ministers.

That’s because corruption in public life is not perceived as a big issue in the UK, unlike in Zimbabwe. That is probably a reasonable stance today; but my fear is whether the public would notice or care if matters started getting worse.  The situation can decline rapidly, and once corruption becomes embedded, it is devilishly difficult to root out. Corruption is not the only cause of Zimbabwe’s decline in recent years, but it is certainly one driver of the economic woes the country has experienced.  So, even in nice, apparently honest western democracies, we need to “stay alert”, as somebody told us recently … 

(And of course there is much more about fraud and corruption in procurement in my new book,  “Bad Buying – How Organizations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F*ck-ups”, available to pre-order now).

In an unusually hard-hitting report dated July 10th, 2023, the UK’s National Audit Office criticised the home insulation scheme introduced in 2020 by the then-Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. 

The first problem, says the report, was that the huge increase in demand for the services such as roof and cavity wall insulation caused “significant inflation in the market”.  That could have been foreseen; just as the massive leap in demand for PPE (personal protective equipment) during the Covid-19 pandemic caused prices to rise by a factor of 10, the money flowing into the insulation scheme had similar (if not quite such dramatic effects). That “could easily have been predicted”, says NAO, and in itself cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions.  

But the bigger problem was fraud carried out by the building firms involved, sometimes independently of their customers and sometimes with the two parties collaborating to rip off the government.

In many cases, the firms quoted far more than the fair market price of the work, telling the customer not to worry because the government would pay, and the installer would then make a payment to the householder as a “thank you”. The firms then relied on the government not having either the resource or the skills to check whether the price quoted was reasonable or not.

The more sophisticated fraud saw builders and homeowners putting in claims, and then splitting the money without the work actually been done, or after much lower value work was carried out.  Whilst the government claimed that it would be carrying out spot-checks, “in practice, so few were done that this did not prove to be a serious deterrent”, says the NAO.  Some checks were carried out by email or phone, “making it easy householders to obscure the truth”.  It took the NAO’s own highly-trained mobile squad of unarmed-combat-expert investigators to “extract the truth” as the report puts it, assuring us that there were very few serious injuries to the team or to citizens.

In other cases, homes already had insulation, so even with inspection it was difficult to prove whether or not the work had not been done as part of this programme.  There were also several cases of “insider fraud”, where the staff handling the voucher scheme (working for the outsourced service provider) colluded with outsiders to fraudulently obtain money.

The Treasury and the Department for Home Insulation responded saying that “the scheme was largely successful, and over 2 million households have benefited from it”. But there has been no measurement of the effect on emissions or on costs for homeowners because the scheme did not “baseline” the starting point, another failing highlighted in the NAO report.  At Prime Minister’s Questions today, Boris Johnson described the scheme as a “spiffing great success”, and said “ we can celebrate that the unprecedented toasty warmth of the Englishman’s house and home has been assured for the centuries”.

OK, this is fantasy of course. But my cynical, suspicious mind looks at schemes like the new home insulation grants, announced by Sunak yesterday, and immediately starts looking for the holes that might allow fraud and corruption. (And if you don’t think governments ever get this sort of thing wrong, do check out the Northern Irish Renewable Heat Incentive scandal).

It’s all about incentivisation really – how the firms and the householders perceive the incentives that influence their behaviour. And if there are incentives for behaving badly (committing fraud), then you have to put in place measures to stop that, because people do respond to incentives.

Indeed, I have a whole chapter on that in my new book, Bad Buying – How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F**k-ups (to be published in October by Penguin Books).  So  I do hope the government doesn’t rush into this without getting a few cynical bas**ds like me to look for the loopholes and the opportunities for fraud! The scheme is not necessarily a bad idea, but there’s a lot of taxpayers’ money at stake here.

Is that expensive “sea bass” in the restaurant, or that you buy as “Category Manager – Fish” for a frozen food manufacturer –  really sea bass? Or is it a cheaper product? Or even something that should not be sold at all, an endangered fish species perhaps. What about those electrical components? Are they genuine, made by the reliable firm whose name is on the case, or are they counterfeit, bad quality products from an obscure plant in an obscure country?

There is a whole category of procurement-related fraud that is based on buyers not getting what they thought they were paying for, and you won’t be surprised to know that a chapter in my forthcoming book  “Bad Buying: How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F**k-ups” covers that very topic.

There are some pretty surprising cases too. Even bulk oil shipments can lead to issues, as there was a court case some years back based on a very large firm shipping oil that was apparently lower grade than the specification agreed with the buyer. So as in that case (or indeed the sea bass example), it can be very difficult to know if you are getting something genuine. Understanding the provenance of what you are buying is key – but not always easy.

However, a story this week from Moldova made even my jaw drop. The “counterfeit” goods in this case are … helicopters! Balkan Insight website reported this.

“The Moldovan Prosecutor’s Office for Combating Organised Crime and Special Cases and investigators from the Police General Inspectorate closed a clandestine factory in the Criuleni area near the Dniester river in the east of the country on Tuesday that was producing copies of Kamov KA-26 Soviet-type helicopters”.

The helicopters were destined to be illegally exported to other ex-soviet countries, and were “produced without the necessary permits and documents of origin for the parts and equipment used.”

 It is not clear whether the buyers knew they were getting unauthorised machines (but presumably at a lower price than the “real thing”) or whether they though the items were genuine. It also raises questions of safety of course. Were they actually made to the right specification, but the manufacturer was acting without the right permissions, or might the helicopters have proved dangerous as well as dodgy?

Anyway, this certainly qualifies as a prime case of Bad Buying, and one of the more interesting cases of what we might call “provenance fraud”. It also has confirmed my personal vow never to step into a helicopter again. I did once, from the centre of New York out to the airport, and while it was an “interesting” experience, it was also a “never again” moment!  

Conflicts of interest lie behind many cases of procurement corruption and indeed other “corruption” in its widest sense. Often, these are not the highest profile or most serious examples – compared to envelopes of cash, swiss bank accounts and expensive prostitutes.  But if the practice of ignoring conflicts of interest (or covering them up) becomes pervasive in an organisation or a country, it can be corrosive and very damaging in the longer term.

A UK government minister, Robert Jenrick, is currently in the public eye because of a planning decision he made that favoured billionaire Richard Desmond. The two men had met at a dinner and chatted not long before the decision was made.  Jenrick is now facing more claims that another conflict of interest cropped up when he had a ministerial meeting with a “family friend” who had a financial interest in the future of a rival mining project that Jenrick was overseeing as minister.

In the procurement world, conflicts of interest can lead to bad buying when a supplier who shouldn’t win a contract does so, or is given a favourable contract, because someone on the buy-side has a vested interest in that happening. Often it is not overt bribery, but is based on relationships, nepotism, friendship, enjoyable dinners, invites to corporate events or Christmas presents. The dividing line between real corruption and poor judgement is very thin here, so we need to make sure that any conflicts are always declared and managed.

Back in my days as a procurement director, I had to ask our CEO, who had recently left Accenture, whether he still owned equity in the firm, as we were running a competition for a major contract for which Accenture was short-listed. If he did, then he couldn’t play any part in the selection process. I think he was genuinely surprised and a little offended by my question. But even if he was a cross between Jesus, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in his personal ethics, it is how others perceive matters as much as the actual risk. And really, if others perceive a conflict, then it probably does exist.

There was a “hushed up” case (my freedom of information requests didn’t get very far) in the NHS not long ago where a small group of procurement executives gave contracts to a firm they controlled, which was also providing services to their organisation.  They may have felt those services were genuine and outside the scope of their “day jobs”. But was there a conflict of interest? Too right there was, and everyone could see that instantly.

And here’s another interesting issue. If I am involved in the decision to award a particular firm a contract, then six months later I join that firm on a huge salary, is that OK?  Many might say “no it isn’t”. But it happens all the time; this was an NHS example when an executive joined Deloitte shortly after the firm had won a large contract from his organisation.  There are of course many cases in the private sector as well as the public. 

And let’s face it, this starts from the top. The UK’s ex-chancellor George Osborne got a part-time job worth £600,000 a year for doing some pretty unspecified work for BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager. But only months earlier, he was ultimately responsible for regulating the entire  financial services industry in the UK. Corruption? Maybe not. A retrospective conflict of interest? Absolutely.  It is the same with staff in the military who jump from managing contracts with big defence and services firms to working for those businesses.

My advice is to make sure your organisation’s HR and procurement policies make it very clear what defines a conflict of interest, and how people must act in that situation. Ensure every employee understands the rules and what they need to do.  And, by the way, “writing it down in a book” or sending a form to some admin person in HR or procurement is not a strong enough policy (just as it isn’t enough for declaring gifts or corporate hospitality).  Do it properly, then if anyone has a conflict, you can take steps to ensure they are not involved in decisions.

And of course, there is more on this in my book, Bad Buying- How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F*ck-ups, to be published in October by Penguin Business.

Yesterday, The Times published a long article looking at how PPE (personal protective equipment) has been supplied to NHS hospitals and other locations during the pandemic. Unlike most articles on this topic, it presented a rosy picture – well, rosy at least once the Army and Clipper Logistics got involved. Indeed, it could not have been more positive about those two organisations if it had been written by their PR people.

Everything was great – everyone got all the PPE they needed, the famous eBay portal worked fine (it didn’t), and the Army plus Clipper rescued the incompetent NHS procurement system. It is a little surprising to see one part of the public sector dumping so publicly on another, but perhaps that is a foretaste of spending battles to come in the UK government through the recession, battles which the NHS is likely to win over the armed forces. Perhaps the military are getting their retaliation in first?

Anyway, the aspect of the article that grabbed my attention was the revelation that the choice of Clipper was made by Neil Ashworth, “a civilian working in the British Army’s Engineering and Logistics Staff Corps and a former supply chain director at Tesco”.  It is not clear quite how and why Ashworth was involved with the Army but The Times says “It was then that the Ministry of Defence made contact with Mr Ashworth to get the ball rolling. He recommended Clipper, a fast-growing logistics group that specialises in online retail, to his MoD contacts and they told him to recruit the company”. Ashworth then called Tony Mannix, the boss of Clipper Logistics, and off they went.

I suspect Ashworth was also behind the choice of eBay for the PPE portal, based on comments made by Eb Mukhtar, the army reserve logistician who has been the public face (or at least the public name) behind this exercise up to now.

But how did Ashworth choose Clipper? Was there an analysis of alternative options? Is there any audit trail to support that decision? Did anyone ask whether Ashworth personally had any conflicts of interest here?

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that the team should have taken 3 months to run a formal tendering exercise. Neither do I think that Clipper slipped Ashworth a brown envelope stuffed with currency – his cv is impressive and he clearly knows this area.  But even in these “difficult times”, we need to be on our guard against fraud and corruption in its widest sense. And my definition of “corruption” includes corruption of the proper process.

So even when there is urgency, we need to know that public money is being protected. In this case, we need some transparency about exactly how these decisions were made, and what checks and balances were in place. The same applies to some of the rather odd looking contracts for PPE itself that are emerging.

In my new book, Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups”, (to be published by Penguin Business in October), there are some amazing stories of fraud and corruption. But the sad fact is that it can spread quickly if there are opportunities or process weakness, as it did in the US Navy during the “Fat Leonard” affair. Or as it has in South African public procurement and through their government owned businesses, to the point where the country is close to being declared a “failed state”.   

The reason it spreads like a virus is explained in my book – here is a key excerpt.

“Finally, this matters because it has wider effects beyond the organisations directly involved, as  corruption can distort normal business and even social practices and priorities. For instance, if firms know that bribing government officials is the best way to win public contracts, a firm will focus its resources and efforts into doing that effectively. They will worry less about writing a good bid, developing better products or services or performing the work well. 

The knock-on effect is that decent firms start thinking “what’s the point”?  They either move over to the dark side and start on the bribery route, or withdraw from the market, customer or even country altogether. This can lead to a downward spiral, where supplier performance gets worse and worse, and corruption becomes endemic…”

You might think that we are somehow immune from that unhappy situation in the UK and other developed countries. We are not. If firms start thinking that “who you know” is more important in terms of winning government contracts than “what you can deliver”, then we will be on a very slippery slope. And that’s why we shouldn’t absolve those involved in public procurement during these “difficult times” from the need for process, propriety and transparency.   

Unfortunately, fraud and corruption are common in the business world, including in many large and well-known firms, as well as in governments the world over. Literally every day you could find a new story breaking that highlights an event of that nature, whether it is thousands of pounds, dollars or euros or millions involved. 

Issues related to ‘buying’, in its widest sense, probably represent the single biggest category of fraud and corruption globally. It is not hard to see why. When we consider fraud, it is clear that criminals trying to make money need to focus on where that money is. And buying (procurement) transactions account for most of the major spend areas for businesses and government bodies.

There are alternative ways you might look to extract money illegally or improperly from corporations, such as blackmail, or banking and investment frauds. There is some non-buying-related fraud committed by employees – we’ve seen examples of senior executives putting through pay rises for themselves that weren’t properly approved, for instance. But buying from third party suppliers accounts for trillions of dollars’ worth of trade annually around the world, so it is not surprising to see a whole range of fraud and corruption cases based around those processes.

Some of the low-level frauds are almost comical. The UK NHS suffered from a senior manager who extracted money by creating false suppliers, in order to fund her own activities as a horse breeder. The need to purchase expensive horse semen was a reason quoted in court to “justify” her criminal action.

However, without wishing to sound too sanctimonious, we do need to remember that there really are no victimless crimes, even in the seemingly light-hearted examples we see.  Taxpayers lose out when it comes to fraud related to government bodies, like the horse-related one. Even if the losses are covered by insurance for firms that are the victims, then insurance premiums will rise, or insurance-firm shareholders will take a hit. Someone always loses when a fraudster gains.

Perhaps the most annoying fact is that most buying-related fraud and corruption could be stopped by organisations taking a few relatively straightforward steps. Or where it can’t be easily stopped, and we’re talking about relatively minor frauds such as misuse of company credit cards, then it could be detected quickly.

Yet too often, the right processes aren’t in place, and we are left with a CFO after the event whining that “it was a very sophisticated fraud”. In 90% of cases, it wasn’t, the fraudsters simply exploited obvious vulnerabilities, and the CFO should be fired on the spot. If that happened a bit more regularly, we would see far fewer buying related frauds, that’s for sure!