In early December the UK Government Cabinet Office published its response to its consultation on proposed new UK public procurement regulations. I was hoping to see what the real experts (Arrowsmith, Telles, Sanchez-Graells etc) thought of the response before going into print, but let’s give it a shot anyway! 

These new regulations in the UK will supersede the previous EU Regs, and will define the way that over £300 billion a year is spent by public sector organisations. The rules may seem unimportant to the average citizen, but getting value for money from this huge spend (£6,000 per year for every adult in the country), and avoiding fraud and corruption are fundamental issues – they have a direct impact on how much tax we all pay, for a start!

The first point to make about the Government’s response is that those who participated in the consultation exercise weren’t wasting their time.  We’ve seen past consultations in different areas of policy where the government seemed to be just ticking the box (“we’ve consulted”) and showed no real desire to change initial proposals or listen to advice. But in this case, credit to the Cabinet Office procurement policy folk – and their political masters – for taking on board many of the most significant points raised by respondents.

That includes for instance retaining the “light touch” regime (with some improvements) for certain procurements, an approach that was seen as helpful by many local authorities and health bodies. Whilst the specific Utilities Regulations will still go, that sector will be able to continue with some of the special “flexibilities” buyers there find useful – the original proposal would have abolished those.

The central governance of the new regime has been watered down after many who commented (including me) expressed concern about an over-powerful new Cabinet Office unit sitting in judgement over buyers, with the ability to intervene or effectively even take over a procurement function that stepped out of line. The new proposals pull back from that, looking instead to build on current powers, although there will be “a duty for contracting authorities to implement recommendations to address non-compliance of procurement law, where breaches have been identified”, which seems reasonable.

The proposal to cap damages where buyers break the rules and get sued by bidders has been dropped – to me, that seemed to be largely addressing a non-existent problem in any case. But the government is still looking at “other measures aimed at resolving disputes faster which would reduce the need to pay compensatory damages to losing bidders after contracts have been signed”.

Transparency is a key issue. The proposals certainly should help in some areas – for instance, by increasing disclosure when contracts are extended or varied.  Following consultation, “we intend to ensure the transparency requirements are proportionate to the procurements being carried out and are simple to implement”. That is hard to argue with, and of course focusing on the most significant contracts is understandable.

But I do still worry that the barriers provided by exemptions from Freedom of Information rules could make it difficult for spend to be properly scrutinized. The reluctance of politicians recently to tell us what went on across a whole range of pandemic-related contracts shows why this is so important. We can’t let UK public procurement slip into the morass of cronyism and corruption that many countries around the world experience, and the last two years have shown we are not immune to that threat.  

Perhaps the biggest question about the proposed changes is around the basic strategy of freeing up contracting authorities from highly structured processes, Instead, buyers will have more scope to design their own processes, within certain broad parameters around fairness and (to some extent) transparency. But that might increase the burden on suppliers if they have to cope with many different approaches and processes when they want to bid for government work, rather than just a handful of set procedures.

However, I don’t think in practice that politicians would have accepted a UK regime that was largely unchanged. “We need to show that we can do things better than the EU” would have been the (not unreasonable) objective behind the new rules. So that additional freedom was always likely to be part of the package – whether it “reduces bureaucracy” or increases it (from the supplier perspective) remains to be seen.

Similarly, we will have to see whether that freedom leads to more commercial approaches to procurement, better use of negotiation and ultimately better value for the taxpayer. Or will it mean  more corrupt procurement, with the flexibility used to give contracts to friends, relatives, cronies, attractive blond American IT experts and random pub landlords? 

That uncertainty means we won’t know for several years whether the new regulations are a success or not. And that leads to a final question – how will we know?  What are the critical success measures, the results, outputs or outcomes that would lead us to say, “yes, the new procurement regulations really have made a difference”?   I’ll leave that question for another day.

Thanks to Supply Management website for drawing my attention to a new e-book, which is a  collection of chapters from different academics and researchers, all around the theme of public procurement in times of emergency.

Procurement in focus – Rules, Discretion and Emergencies is published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), a network of over 1600 research economists based mainly in European universities, and it is edited by Oriana Bandiera, Erica Bosio and Giancarlo Spagnolo. It can be downloaded here (free of charge).

It is somewhat academic in nature, as you might expect, but it has interesting and useful commentary on issues related to emergencies and corruption – and indeed more general insight into public procurement issues. The chapter on procurement competence, for instance, applies more widely than simply during a crisis.

The authors start by defining this “problem” with public procurement.

The procurement of public goods and services is a textbook example of moral hazard: an agent buys goods that he does not use with money he does not own. The agent’s goal is typically set to achieve ‘value for money’ for the taxpayer, but value for money is hard to measure and often not entirely under the control of the agent. The latter makes the contract between the state and its procurement agents incomplete and, for economists, very interesting.

This issue of moral hazard and “agency” leads to a fundamental issue with public procurement. As the authors say:

The core theme that runs through the book is the fundamental tension between rules and discretion. Rules limit agents’ ability to pursue their private interests at the expense of the taxpayers, but discretion allows them to use their knowledge of the context and react quickly to unforeseen changes. 

During the pandemic, and at other times of disaster or emergency, procurement regulations are often suspended or more flexible approaches are allowed. That increases the speed and flexibility with which important procurement activities can be delivered, but it also increases the chance of fraud, corruption and waste. How to balance those two aspects is tricky, to say the least, as the furore in the UK over PPE procurement last year has shown.

There is no doubt that buyers had to move quickly to save lives; but did that speed and lack of process regulation allow corruption or at best “cronyism” to thrive? It certainly did cost the UK taxpayer billions, as more PPE than was really needed was bought, at hugely inflated prices compared to those that were usual in the steady-state market.   

From a Bad Buying viewpoint, corruption is often hard to identify and therefore hard to measure in an academically rigorous way.  So researchers generally use “proxy measures” – for example, looking at the number of contracts awarded without competition, single bidding situations, or very short deadlines for bids. Clearly, we saw more of this behaviour during the first emergency period of the pandemic. However, in some cases, emergency procedures are still in place, and the book questions why this continued higher risk of corruption is being allowed to continue now, given that in most cases, supply is no longer quite so emergency in nature.

The chapter by Mihaly Fazekas, Shrey Nishchal and Tina Soreide, titled “Public procurement under and after emergencies” is particularly relevant to what we have seen in the last 18 months or so. It acknowledges that procurement must be handled differently in times of emergency, and makes these sensible recommendations:

  • Preparations for emergency situations should include defining crisis-ready contracting procedures, outlining fundamental principles of crisis response, putting in place effective ex post controls and setting out a risk-based sanctions framework. Controls should be targeted at high-risk procurement without disruptive, wide ranging monitoring frameworks.
  • Monitoring and controls are best reoriented towards outputs and results rather than procedural correctness because deviations from standard open tendering processes (e.g. short advertisements) are unavoidable in times of crisis (Fazekas and Sanchez 2021).
  • Strengthening non-bureaucratic controls of public procurement outcomes may counter-balance loosened ex ante procedural checks. For example, greater attention from civil society and the media may contribute to stronger political accountability, which is likely to increase the cost of corruption in emergency spending.
  • While many of the corruption risks in emergency procurement are hard to avoid and control, ringfencing emergency rules both in time and by market is crucial. Obviously, if emergency spending is needed in healthcare, there is little justification for relaxing the rules for building football stadiums, for instance.

Much of the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the fundamental principles and issues of public procurement. It is also very relevant at a time when the UK is putting together its new post-EU public procurement regulations – and we hope to feature more discussion around that here shortly too.  

Emergencies | Regulations | Academic

(Picture courtesy of my phone and a very old carrot from the back of the fridge)

Let’s have a rest today from pandemic related buying failures, (potential) frauds and so on, and look at something more heart-warming.

Advertising is a fascinating field when it comes to bad – or good – buying. That’s because of the multiplier effect. It is one of those spend categories where the impact of the spend can be out of all proportion to the amount of money actually paid out. That can be either a positive or negative impact, it is important to say.

So if I am buying cleaning services, or packaging, or raw materials, then as long as there isn’t a major fraud (contaminated material, perhaps) probably the worst that can happen is we “lose” the value of the expenditure.  The packaging doesn’t work on our production line, or the cleaning service is hopeless. Even then, I may well be able to recover something from the supplier. But if I spend a million on a brilliant advertising campaign, that spend could generate tens or even hundreds of millions of “brand value” in terms of future sales and profit. And if I make a lousy buying decision, we might lose similarly large amounts of value.  

There’s a great seasonal example right now with supermarket group Aldi and their “Kevin the Carrot” campaign, which first was aired in 2016, five Christmases ago.  I don’t know how much Aldi paid for the creative genius behind Kevin, but it was money very well spent. Aldi now receive millions of pounds worth of free advertising as the media highlights the adventures of Kevin without the firm paying a penny for much of the coverage.

There is even a range of Kevin-related soft toys, and demand is so great that “to help reduce crowds in the current climate, this year Aldi has introduced a digital queuing software that’s also used by music festival Glastonbury”, according to Wales Online’s coverage of Kevin!

But we might imagine the first meeting when the agency pitched this to the Aldi marketeers… “ a talking carrot? Are you sure? I mean, carrots aren’t even very Christmassy really”? 

“Yeah, but a cute talking turkey might not work…”

Anyway, marketing and advertising can go the other way too. Remember the backlash in 2017 when the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner seemed to suggest that public demonstrations would all turn into happy, cheerful love-ins if Kendall just shared some Pepsi around the police and the protesters? That was withdrawn and although Pepsi got free publicity too, just like Aldi, it wasn’t quite as positive.

There’s an older example in my Bad Buying book, with the case of Schlitz Beer. It’s a multi-part story really, because the firm’s problems started with a sequence of recipe changes to the beer, which didn’t go well in terms of customer reaction. With sales falling rapidly, a new advertising campaign was the answer.

Unfortunately, the creative contribution was the opposite of the inspired talking carrot, as Schlitz used a boxer who got upset when someone offered him a beer that wasn’t Schlitz. His anger at this proposal was not very appealing however, and it went down in history as the “drink Schlitz or I’ll kill you” campaign!  The firm was eventually bought at a knock-down price by a competitor, as sales continued to slide.

That was an example of advertising spend having that negative multiplier I described earlier and I’m sure we can all think of ads that made us feel less rather than more inclined to buy a product. But in the meantime, enjoy Kevin, and I’ll see you in the queue for the Giant Kevin the Carrot Plush Toy! (too late, sold out already…)

We’re seeing so many interesting procurement and supply chain issues during the pandemic, but focus tends to shift week by week. We’ve had the challenge of finding more ventilators, which has more or less disappeared as medics have found that such treatment isn’t advisable for many patients. Then we had global shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) – that issue certainly hasn’t disappeared, and we’re now all very interested in how a tiny pest-control business in England could win a contract for over £100 million of PPE supply.

But there’s another “spend category” that could make £100 million contracts look trivial. According to the Guardian today (June 18th), the UK’s National Health Service is considering a huge deal with the private hospital sector to use the private facilities in order to help clear the backlog  of non-Covid treatments that re urgently needed. (The NHS has effectively taken over the private hospital sector since March, but there is evidence that many of their facilities have not been heavily used up to now).

The newspaper says that “Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and NHS bosses are pushing for a £5bn-a-year deal to treat NHS patients in private hospitals and tackle a spiralling backlog amid the coronavirus pandemic”.

However, the Treasury (the UK finance ministry) has refused to sign off the deal, and has told the health department (DHSC) to “get more detailed commitments from private firms about the number of patients who will be treated every month in return for the payments”.

Well done, the Treasury!

I’d like to think that some sensible procurement professionals are involved in those discussions, although I am surprised that those procurement experts who sit in the DHSC (and there are a few…) didn’t get everything in line before the deal went to Treasury. It does also suggest that Sir Simon Stevens, who leads the NHS, and was apparently about to announce the deal, maybe doesn’t really “get” procurement. That is something we have suspected for a while and was reinforced by his choice of a Chief Commercial Officer last year who had no procurement experience whatsoever.

In any case, throwing £5 billion at some private firms without knowing exactly what they will do for the money wouldn’t be sensible and would indeed be “Bad Buying”.  It may be that the view was to set up some sort of “cost plus” or “time and materials” arrangement with the private firms, rather than having very clear deliverables, payment based on outputs and so on. But those mechanisms, where payment to suppliers is based on their costs rather than what they actually do, has some major disadvantages. Here is a short extract from my forthcoming book, “Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failure, fraud and f*ck-ups” (to be published by Penguin in October). I’m talking about construction contracts here, but the principles are absolutely the same.

“How about ‘time and materials’? In that type of agreement, the builder keeps a record of all materials they buy for the project, and the time that staff – bricklayers, carpenters, labourers and the like – spend on the work. The buyer agrees to pay those actual costs, plus some sort of margin to cover overheads and profit. Traditionally, many such agreements were based on a ‘cost plus’ model. So, you might agree to pay your builders all their costs, plus 20 per cent on top.

But you can see the incentivization problem here. Not only does the firm have no incentive to buy bricks as cheaply as possible, but they actually have an incentive to spend more on material and to make the work go on as long as possible, as they recover all those  costs back, plus 20 per cent on top of that! You could put a cap on the profit / overhead element, but that doesn’t fully address the incentivization issue on the materials or labour”.

Anyway, it is right that the government takes its time and applies all the skills it has at its disposal to get these contracts right. We’ve got blasé about large amounts of money being spent through the pandemic, but this is £5 billion we’re talking about. (“A billion here, a billion there… pretty soon you’re talking real money”, as the phrase goes).

I’d also hope that best practice contract and supplier management principles are going to be adopted here too. But that’s another whole story …