Last week the Sunday Times ran an expose of the UK’s HS2 rail project. The programme is being severely curtailed now due to massive over spending against the budget.

Over several pages, the Times laid out a culture of overspending and bad financial forecasting, with those who tried to point out the problems often forced out or removed if contractors. The accusation is that senior managers knew that budgets were unrealistic but covered up the facts for as long as possible. Presumably that was to keep their lucrative jobs, and keep ministers happy. The thinking may have been that If the programme got to a certain point, then it could not be cancelled.

There was more in yesterday’s edition of the Sunday Times, including an interview with Stephen Cresswell, one of the whistleblowers.

This first phase was expected to cost £21 billion and yet his calculations suggested a fairer assessment was £30 billion — a huge discrepancy. “There were problems with the way the figures had been calculated and it was likely to cost an awful lot more,” he says. “I did the calculations pointing this out but I was told to concentrate my efforts on something else.”

Unfortunately this good piece of reporting did not get much discussion on national TV news certainly, perhaps unsurprisingly given the disaster unfolding in Israel and Gaza.  The report did say that the internal audit function at HS2 is looking into the allegations – but that isn’t good enough. We really need a detailed external review of what happened in HS2, to understand that specific case but more importantly, to see what lessons can be learnt that apply to other large capital programmes in the UK.  Maybe that is best done by the National Audit Office, although several ex-employees have written to the SFO (Serious Fraud Office) accusing HS2 of mismanagement of public funds, so maybe this will all turn more “criminal”. 

If no action is taken quickly, then we will have to see if Labour will have the appetite for driving a review if they do form the next government. After all, it was Labour and Lord Adonis, then Transport Minister, who kicked off HS2 and Adonis was a non-exec of HS2 for some years. But we really do need a review. We can’t allow huge expenditures where the people involved and responsible are pursuing their own goals rather than the taxpayers’ best interests. As Cresswell put it: “Costs, risks, timescales and benefits are being manipulated to suit individuals or organisational goals rather than the public interest”.

Another interesting point the Sunday Times highlighted last week is that Ministers appear to have lied to Parliament – or at best “misled” the house. Chirs Grayling was one, but a junior Minister is also accused.

“ On June 7, 2019, Cook sent a first draft of his report to Grayling. It suggested HS2 was billions of pounds over budget and years behind schedule.….  In July, the minister for transport, Nusrat Ghani, fielded questions during a Westminster Hall debate on HS2 before the Commons final vote on the bill to approve the Birmingham to Crewe phase two leg.  She said: “I stand here to state confidently that the budget is £55.7 billion and that the timetable is 2026 and 2033.” She repeated her assurances five days later, during the third reading debate in the Commons.

An FOI request exposed that she had been told 3 months earlier that the programme would breach its budget – so doesn’t that sound like lying to Parliament?  

It was good to see the shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, announcing that a “covid corruption commissioner” will look into PPE procurement during the pandemic and the waste of billions of public money. In terms of waste, HS2 is at least on that scale, so surely that also deserves a very thorough and independent look at what happened there?

I spoke recently at the UK Universities Procurement conference and as usual, had some interesting conversations around the margins of my session. In one such discussion, a sustainability person from a major university told me that his organisation was looking to increase the percentage of marks awarded to “social value” in tenders from 20% to 30%.  I must admit this surprised me, and I am certainly not in favour of this at the moment. It feels like we are heading for another new category of Bad Buying stories – where firms win tenders based mainly on their social value proposals rather than on their capability and the real “value” of their offering.

I have been consistently in favour of including social value in public procurement. But we haven’t been doing it for long, and I have not seen much analysis of exactly how successful it has been to date. So it seems too soon to be putting quite so much emphasis on that at the expense of cost, wider quality or service issues, supplier innovation and so on.  I would personally like to see 10-15% of the marks allocated to social value until we have more evidence.

One key concern is that organisations in my experience sometimes don’t really understand their own evaluation processes. My question to anyone thinking of moving to 30% is this. Given the evaluation methodology you are using, how much more are you prepared to pay for a proposal that scores 100% on social value creation as against one that scores 50%? Because that is what your evaluation scheme actually determines.

Some might say “ah, but social value has a real financial benefit too”.  In general, that is simply not true – certainly for the contracting authority itself. Read my article from a year ago here if you want more to support my claim). A quick extract – “In almost all cases, this is not real money. “Wooden dollars” as someone described it to me recently. It does not show up on the buyer’s P&L or balance sheet. You can’t spend these “financial” benefits on more road maintenance, a new operating theatre, or re-opening a drop-in centre for vulnerable people. No cash appears in the CFO’s hands.

The other big problem is that where there are benefits from social value, they often don’t go to the actual buyer. So if a university is accepting something like “employing more apprentices” as a positive social value factor, then how exactly does that benefit the university itself? Maybe it is good for society more generally, although big firms always employ apprentices so whether this is real incremental benefit from this contract is often questionable. We are also building in a barrier for smaller suppliers when we do this.

If we go down the 30% route, I can see some scandals emerging where contracting authorities end up paying way over the odds for goods or services, and their defence is “but the social value was great – look, the supplier painted a scout hut”. Yes, but was that worth the extra million you paid to a supplier who turned out to be not very good at the core work?  Look at the Scottish ferries fiasco if you want an example of what can happen when a basically incompetent supplier wins a contract for non-value for money reasons.

I don’t want to become an “anti-social value” campaigner, but I really don’t like the idea of 30% of evaluation marks going on social value until we understand a lot more about best practice and how we can get the most out of this initiative for the taxpayer. And we’re not there yet.

However, there is one more innovative option. You could specify a fixed price and then evaluate on service, social value and other factors. I have heard of this being done and it has some merits. So you might say “we are prepared to pay £500K for this service – now tell me how you will do it and what social value you will provide”. In that case, I’m open to a 30% weighting.

The UK’s National Health Service has for years been a “good” source of Bad Buying fraud and corruption stories.  There are several reasons for that. Firstly, it is huge organisation, employing some 1.3 million people. Secondly, it actually has a pretty good counter-fraud unit, and when fraudsters are discovered, they are often prosecuted, so the news becomes public domain, whereas private sector firms often hush up embarrassing cases. But it has to be said – the cases I’ve seen over the years often also suggest that too many NHS organisations have very weak policies and processes around procurement and payments.

The latest case reported in the media recently saw Thomas Elrick, 56, jailed for 3 years and 8 months.  He was assistant managing director for planned and unscheduled care at Harrow Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) where he had the authority to approve invoices up to £50,000. That organisation is a purchaser rather than a direct provider of healthcare – so it buys services from providers on behalf of the local citizens. 

Elrick created a company, Tree of Andre Therapy Services Limited, using the name of his husband (who knew nothing about it) as the owner, and invoiced the Trust for services that were never provided. Between August 2018 and December 2020 he authorised payments totalling £564,484. To cover his tracks, he also sent an email from the account of his dead wife which claimed to show details of patients the firm had “treated”.

Elrick spent over £100,000 on holidays to Dubai, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Singapore and Switzerland, and also spent just under half a million on shopping, with Amazon, Apple and David Lloyd gyms. But eventually a smart colleague decided to look up the Care Quality Commission accreditation for this firm and found of course that it did not have one, and then the connection to Elrick was found.

There is an interesting angle here in terms of his response. In a statement after he was sentenced, Elrick said “I wish I could turn back the clock but I know that I cannot and I sincerely apologise…  I am not a bad person. I believe that I am fundamentally a good person who made bad decisions, for which I take sole responsibility.” 

Self-delusion is an amazing thing, isn’t it?  I stole half a million from the NHS but I am “fundamentally a good person”.  The mind of a fraudster is often interesting, I suspect.   

But we have to ask how on earth this fraud was possible?  In my Bad Buying book, I give seven key anti-fraud precautions every organisation should follow and this case study and organisation broke several of them. There was no check on the onboarding of a substantial new supplier, which had no trading record, no CCG listing and a conflict of interest in the ownership (although that might not have been easily spotted). There was no check apparently that services paid for were actually received; and of course most fundamentally one person could conduct the whole pseudo-procurement process and authorise payment of large invoices without anyone else being involved or approving the spend. “Separation of duties” and all that.

This was not a sophisticated fraud. It was enabled by an incredibly weak process that was wide open for exploitation by anyone with a modicum of intelligence (and a lack of morals).  Personally, I would fire the CFO and the Procurement Director at the Trust for allowing this money to be stolen so easily.  But this is the case in so many organisations and so often – basic precautions against fraud are simply not put in place. Is it ignorance, laziness, or maybe a management team that wants to leave the door open just in case they want to do something dodgy themselves? Who knows.

Without fanfare or comment, in the middle of the holiday season, the UK government recently published the data for spend with SMEs (small and medium enterprises) for 2021/22.  This covers central departments, and some associated bodies, although the definition of what is in and what is out is not always clear. The data is given as direct spend – money that goes straight to the small firms – and indirect, the spend that goes via larger firms that then use SMEs in their supply chain.

It is not unusual for it to take over a year from the end of the period in question before data is published. That is in part because it does take a while to gather the data, but I suspect the publication might have happened sooner if there had been a positive story to tell.

But the headline number was that SME percentage spend declined in 2021/22 compared to 2020/21.  The total was down from 26.9% to 26.5%, and the direct spend was down from 14.2% to 12.3%. That does not look good against the government target of 33% of spend.

Indirect spend was up by 1.4% but that was not enough to compensate for the drop in direct spend.  It looks like the main reason for the overall decline was a big drop in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) SME spend year on year. I suspect that is the “PPE effect” – as we know, there was lots of PPE bought in 2020 and 2021 from smaller firms. They were often crooks, chancers and friends of ministers, but they were SMEs, nonetheless.

Until the pandemic, the DHSC spend was relatively small compared to MOD and Transport – the two “traditional” big spenders.  Most health spend was out in the Trusts so not captured in this data. But the huge amount of “central “ buying, on PPE but also track and trace and other projects, pushed up the significance of DHSC in the overall numbers.

In 2019/20, DHSC spend was just £3.1 billion against MOD’s £21.1 billion. But the figure shot up to £13.3B in 20/21 (MOD was £19.5B) and was still £11.5B in 21/22.  In 20/21, 23.3% of the DHSC total was direct SME spend, so that made the year look better, but by 21/22 that dropped to 14.2%, pulling down the whole percentage.

I’m going into some detail there because it does demonstrate how ridiculous looking at the overall number actually is. When one factor – PPE – in one Department can skew the whole data set, it is pretty useless. But let’s go back in time and look at how this target emerged.  

Supporting smaller firms was one of the first “social value” type issues government embraced. I worked in the Office of Government Commerce (part of Treasury, the UK finance ministry) as a consultant back in 2009 on the implementation of the 2008 Glover report – “Accelerating the SME economic engine: through transparent, simple and strategic procurement”.  (That link took some finding!)

But Sally Collier (OGC’s Policy director) and I didn’t really like the idea of targets for spend with SMEs for various reasons. One was the difficulty of setting sensible targets, which really needed to vary by department to be meaningful. We were interested in departments and buyers simply doing the right things, and therefore also worried that targets would mean effort going into the data, not the real action. But our advice was ignored and after the 2010 election a 25% target was set. 

It quickly emerged that 25% was unachievable. The Ministry of Defence and the Highways Agency (Transport) accounted for almost half of central government procurement spend and there was no way an SME was going to build a warship or the M25 motorway.  So the target was changed to an “aspiration”, a classic Francis Maude fudge, and then indirect spend was included to make it easier to hit the target.

But many of the first-tier suppliers to government have no idea really how much they spend with SMEs, so the data is pretty dodgy. Then the 25% target – which had never been achieved – was stupidly changed in 2015 to 33%, purely because the Cameron government wanted to say something positive for the “small business” lobby in their election manifesto.  And 33% is unachievable too, as we’ve seen, even including indirect spend.

The other issue is whether supporting SMEs is the right target today. We have become much more sophisticated in the 15 years since Glover and now most large private firms are interested in supporting diverse suppliers, not simply small firms.

So why not shift the focus to using government procurement to support charities and social enterprises, minority owned firms, innovative businesses, firms in deprived areas or those that employ lots of disabled people?  You don’t see Unilever or other admired private sector businesses defining some prospective suppliers as special just because they are small. Indeed, many SMEs are small because they want to be, or because they just aren’t very good.

But there has been good work in government over the years in terms of helping SMEs. For example, even back in 2009, MOD led some impressive initiatives to promote SMEs through their supply chain. But really, this element of public procurement policy is crying out for a refresh, a more nuanced set of objectives and – if we must have targets – something that is realistic and motivating, not a painful data collection exercise that is bound to end in failure.  

A few weeks ago, the UK National Audit Ofice issued a report titledCompetition in public procurement – lessons learned”. 

Unlike most of that organisation’s reports, it wasn’t looking at a specific project within one Department, but rather looked across central government at how procurement “competition” is working to help “support efficiency, innovation and quality in public services”. As the NAO says, when competition is lacking or ineffective, other safeguards need to be pursued otherwise the end results can be negative for the taxpayer. 

But the overall findings given in the report do not paint a reassuring picture.

“Our review of competition in public procurement has found that government cannot show how well competition is working, and that the structures to encourage and support the use of competition are not all working as intended. Departments are unclear how to engage with the market before they let a contract, and do not consistently follow central guidance. For example, they routinely extend contracts rather than retendering them. The Cabinet Office provides guidance but does not take advantage of the data it collects to understand more about competition and gain further benefits”.

Extending contracts can be done for good reasons, but often it is just the lazy option. It may be happening more often because of a shortage of staff today but that is no excuse really. The need for some further analysis of this and action from Cabinet Office is even more pressing when you read this.

“Government procured 72% of its large contracts through frameworks in 2021-22 compared to 43% in 2018-19. Frameworks are designed for procuring common goods and services to allow departments to access economies of scale, but they are not always the way to achieve the best competition. Guidance produced by government states that where the goods or services are not common, a full procurement process should be undertaken.”

I found that genuinely shocking. I’m not surprised use of frameworks has risen, and used properly, they can be an excellent mechanism. However, to see that growth, almost a doubling of the number of contracts awarded in that manner over just 3 years, is quite shocking. It really does require some serious analysis as to why this has happened and what the consequences might be. NAO didn’t look at how often “direct awards” are made from frameworks unfortunately.  Those awards are obviously much more anti-competitive than running a proper “call-off competition” from a framework (although even that does of course shut out non-framework participants). 

The NAO makes some sensible recommendations, suggesting Cabinet Office should work with Departments to improve data and published information, drive better early market engagement and look more carefully at the frameworks issue. But there seems little doubt that competition in central government procurement has declined dramatically in recent years. If like me you believe that competition is THE most fundamental driver for value for money, as well as an essential element in the fight against fraud and corruption, that has to be worrying.

My feeling is that too many people, from politicians to senior budget holders to some commercial / procurement people themselves, are happy for frameworks to be used and contracts extended. That is both to save time and money on running procurement processes, and in many cases, so they can fundamentally choose which supplier they want to use and just put a veneer of governance around that. Occasionally that choice is driven by corruption , but usually it is people who genuinely think they are doing the right thing. But it is fundamentally anti-competitive.

There is no doubt that Gareth Rhys Williams, (government’s Chief Commercial Officer), Crown Commercial Services and the GCO have done some good work in terms of the “inputs” to government procurement. The focus on people and training, and the various impressive “playbooks” are evidence of this. But certainly from the outside, there is less evidence of the tangible outputs that have resulted from this work, other than somewhat  spurious “savings” numbers that are produced.

Indeed, on that note, the NAO says this in the recent report. “Government monitors savings from individual frameworks by comparing their prices to estimations of prices charged by suppliers outside the framework”.  That’s not exactly rigorous, is it? Particularly when the procurement process for one of the largest frameworks (the management consulting example I analysed here) was explicitly designed to allow the big firms to win a place without needing to submit particularly competitive pricing.  (I should say that I believe Simon Tse has done a great job running the operational arm of Crown Commercial Services in terms of meeting that organisation’s objectives in recent years. I might question some of those objectives however!)

But more competitive government supply markets surely must be a fundamental objective for government procurement. The NAO report suggests that it has not been achieved over recent years.

I’ve decided that I’m going to win the 100 metres sprint at next year’s Paris Olympics. I believe the benefits for the UK economy will be huge and I will inspire millions with my efforts. My wife has pointed out that my best time for the event was 13.8 seconds, recorded at Houghton School some years ago (many years ago to be honest). I need to beat that by some 4.5 seconds next year, but I am quietly confident.

However, in her annual report on my planned activities, Jane has had the temerity to rank my chances of success as “red”.  That red rating indicates that “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.” That means “there are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable”.

I am disgusted by this lack of positivity. My gold medal will lead to transformational benefits for generations to come, improving connections and helping grow the economy. And I have already spent billions on food supplements, very expensive training programmes and massages, so you wouldn’t want to waste that money, would you?

That is pretty much the situation with HS2, the high-speed rail programme that is going to link London with other cities in England. The latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which sits within the government’s Cabinet Office, has given the first two phases (1 and 2a) of the HS2 programme an unachievable “red” rating, defined as above.

There is no mention of HS2 anywhere in the report’s various narrative sections, despite the fact it is the biggest single programme in the UK in terms of cost.  In the table that list all 250+ projects, all it says next to the red rating is this. “A new railway connecting the country’s biggest cities and economic regions enabling rebalancing and regional growth in the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse – through a high capacity, high speed and low carbon transport solution”.

And the Department for Transport’s response is also pretty much as above.

Spades are already in the ground on HS2, with 350 construction sites, over £20bn invested to date and supporting over 28,500 jobs. We remain committed to delivering HS2 in the most cost-effective way for taxpayers. HS2 will bring transformational benefits for generations to come, improving connections and helping grow the economy”.

That really is treating us as idiots. No attempt to actually respond to the undeliverability issues, or explain how “red” will turn to amber and green, just that they’re committed to it and we’ve spent a sh** load of money already, so hey, let’s spend another £50 billion or so. At least.  

Clearly, all those supposedly super-clever people in Treasury and Department of Transport have never heard of the sunk cost fallacy. Well, of course they have heard of it but this is politics. Civil servants just have to do what their masters tell them, but you can be sure HS2 will be disappearing from a lot of senior peoples’ cvs on LinkedIn in a few years’ time. This is just a terrible, disgraceful and ridiculous waste of public money, from the beginning when the business case was manipulated to appear positive, and my daughter’s generation will be asking questions for years to come about just how we allowed this to happen.

William Hague in The Times agreed.

“If I were still in government, I would be climbing the walls about this. I would want to stop all work on HS2 today, but I know I would be told that the contracts signed for its construction make that impossible. I would want to fire somebody senior, but I would be informed that the chief executive of HS2 Ltd already quit last month so that satisfaction would be denied me.

Then I would say that if we can’t cancel it we should at least make sure that the bits that haven’t been abandoned will work well, but I would be told that the cost of making it start in Euston has doubled recently, that no one could decide how many platforms they wanted to build, that this crucial part is currently unaffordable and that the transformational, high-speed connection of Birmingham to central London might not even reach the latter. And then I would want to scream”.

Indeed, the IPA report is generally disappointing. It is full of case studies of successful projects and programmes (244 now in the portfolio), with little or no discussion on the problems. And I’m not sure how the rapid charging fund for EVs can be seen as a success when you read this. Most of the case studies have a few initial issues but are turned round thanks to the IPA to deliver success.  It reads in the main like a marketing document from a consulting firm. (I actually wonder whether privatisation is on the cards?)  I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, at the end of the day, the IPA is not truly independent, it is part of government, so it does have to toe the party line.

It is also noticeable that so many projects are rated amber – no less than 80%. That can be a bit of a cop-out rating really. It says there are issues, but nothing too much to worry about. I think when the IPA or its predecessor first started, there were amber/red and amber/green ratings too, but I suspect that put too many projects into the (at least partially) red bracket, which is embarrassing for the government. But really having 80% of the projects ranked at the same level reduces the usefulness for any external scrutiny.  

Anyway, in the couple of hours it has taken me to write this, another £4 million or so has been spent on HS2. What a waste.

The US Government Department of Justice recently issued a news release.  

Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corporation has agreed to pay the United States $377,453,150 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by improperly billing commercial and international costs to its government contracts. Booz Allen, which is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, provides a range of management, consulting, and engineering services to the Government, as well as commercial and international customers”.

I do love the precision of the final $150 on that number! Couldn’t they have rounded it slightly?

The accusation was that between 2011 and 2021, the consulting firm charged costs to its government contracts and subcontracts that should instead have been billed to its commercial and international contracts. That particularly applied to some indirect costs. So the government was allegedly paying for activities and services that had nothing to do with the work the firm was actually doing for government organisations.

Now allocating overheads can be a tricky issue, as many of us know. And Booz Allen issued a statement, as you might expect.

“Booz Allen has always believed it acted lawfully and responsibly. It decided to settle this civil inquiry for pragmatic business reasons to avoid the delay, uncertainty, and expense of protracted litigation. The company did not want to engage in what likely would have been a years-long court fight with its largest client, the U.S. government, on an immensely complex matter. The company fully cooperated with the government and is pleased to move forward.”

So there is no admitting liability or guilt here. I can understand why the firm does not want a long, expensive fight – on the other hand, if you were 100% sure of your position, many firms would choose to take it further rather than handing over quite such a large amount of cash.

The most amazing element of this story is this. The investigation was sparked by a whistleblower, a former Booz Allen employee, Sarah Feinberg, who tipped off the authorities about the alleged misconduct from 2011 to 2021. And now she will receive no less than $69,828,832 as a thanks (it’s that precision again…)  

$69.8 million!  Good grief, I’m going to have a good think now about every firm I’ve ever worked for and whether they might have done anything “naughty” in their dealings with the US government …  

The moral of thee story is simple. Check your billing from professional service firms. I once took on a senior interim commercial/procurement role in government with an organisation that had around 100 consultants from one firm working on its major programme. That was £500K A WEEK we were paying this firm (it better be nameless…)  

I took a look at the invoices – incredibly there was no contract manager for this contract – and found that amongst other things, we were being billed for the senior partner’s assistant. The partner was only working about a day a week on our project, but we appeared to be paying a grand a day, every day, for his PA. We were also billed for the whole day for the whole team when I knew they had stopped work at lunchtime for their office Christmas Party! “An unfortunate error” I was told.  I saved £50K with one phone call there…

Of course, if you can structure any professional services assignment on a fixed price basis, most of these issues are avoided. That approach is usually – although not always – better for the buyer and actually arguably for the provider too. That is another question in this Booz Allen example. Why was so much government work being done on what sounds like a pretty loose “time and materials” basis?

Programmes to support minority owned businesses, smaller firms, social enterprises and the like via public sector procurement have become increasingly popular over recent years in many countries. The Social Value Act in the UK in 2012 made this sort of action more prevalent in the UK, but the USA is probably where such schemes are longest established.

However, the irony is that the more successful such programmes are in terms of actually directing spend towards such suppliers, the greater the temptation for fraud and corruption to spring up. Genuine firms that need support might lose out to unscrupulous criminals and conmen/women.

One mechanism for that is basically using what we might call “non-value for money” evaluation criteria to award contracts to a supplier that doesn’t really deserve them. That can lead to distortion in the selection of winning bidders. “This firm’s bid wasn’t the cheapest but they are a small firm / owned by a women / promise to employ lots of disabled local people. That gave them lots of marks for “social value” in the bid evaluation”.  What isn’t made public is that the firm is also owned by the budget holder or decision maker’s sister-in-law.

The other quite common fraud is where a firm is apparently owned by a person or people who qualify as a “minority” but in fact, control rests with non-minority owners. We have seen that a lot in the USA and also in countries such as South Africa which have had schemes to give preference to black-owned businesses in public procurement.  I gave several examples of this in the Bad Buying book from both of those countries.

But this is still going on – a recent report in the Chicago Tribune highlighted a current case. It is not clear yet which of those two mechanisms is suspected here; is it disguised ownership or the use of minority programmes to favour a firm for improper reasons?  But federal prosecutors are “investigating possible minority-contracting fraud involving a series of Chicago government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including many with ties to a clout-heavy trucking and recycling company owner, according to sources and documents obtained by the Tribune”.

James Bracken and his wide Kelly own several companies engaged in construction, waste management and transportation. Investigators have asked city agencies for copies of bid documents and more relating to several contracts and for information relating to the city’s women and minority owned “set aside” programmes.

The programmes started in 1990 with the aim of awarding at least 25% of the total value of all city contracts to minority businesses and 5% to women-owned operations. But there have been accusations of fraud from the beginning. Company owners, chasing multimillion-dollar contracts, have put up phony “frontpeople” to get certified as minority or women-owned. Another route is to claim that a high percentage of work will got to minority subcontractors. In my experience, that is the sort of claim that rarely gets checked once a contract is operational!

A lot of this comes down to procurement carrying out the appropriate due diligence and checking out firms at the bidding stage, managing contracts well once they are operational, and of course keeping an eye out for conflicts of interest and other potential drivers of corruption. It is a constant battle between the forces of good (procurement, usually) and evil (certain dodgy potential suppliers and general low-life scum!)

It feels like the new UK Procurement Bill has been moving through Parliament for years – it is only a year in fact, although before that there was an extended period of consultation.

One of the themes of the Bill is that it should be easier for the contracting authority (CA) to “bar” or disqualify suppliers from bidding altogether. That has been possible for many years if the supplier or one of its directors had committed certain criminal acts, but the new legislation includes exclusion for poor performance for the first time.  There is also exclusion for “improper behaviour” which has led to a supplier gaining an unfair advantage in the competitive process.

However, the authority will also have some flexibility. The new rules mean that the existence of a mandatory or discretionary exclusion ground is not enough in itself to throw the bidder out of the process.  The CA has to first decide if the circumstances giving rise to the exclusion are likely to happen again. That’s quite a difficult and potentially controversial assessment to ask the buyer to make, in my view. There is also going to be a centrally-managed list of firms that have been barred.

It will be interesting to see whether there will really be any significant change of behaviour in this area. In truth, CAs are very cautious about barring firms, fearing I suspect legal challenge and endless argument getting in the way of running the actual procurement process. I’m not sure that will change.

An interesting example of this unwillingness was reported recently on the Nation Cymru website. Campaigners have accused a National Health Service Trust of ignoring anti-fraud regulations by allowing two firms that have been convicted of bid-rigging to form part of a consortium to build a new cancer centre in South Wales. The Acorn Consortium is the preferred bidder for constructing the new Velindre Hospital in Cardiff. That project has faced strong opposition on environmental and medical grounds, and it is those against the construction who have raised this issue.

Nation Cymru has described how two of the consortium members – the Kajima group and Sacyr – have been found guilty of fraud offences in Japan and Spain respectively. As the website reported,

“Kajima was sentenced for bid-rigging in March 2021, with one of its executives receiving a suspended prison sentence and the company itself being fined 250 million yen (around £1.53m) for its role in the scandal, which involved a number of firms colluding with each other on the construction of a railway line to maximise their profits. Sacyr received a penalty of €16.7m in July 2022 for its part in creating a cartel aimed at aligning bids for government contracts”.

When asked why this had not led to exclusion, a Velindre University NHS Trust spokesperson responded: “The robust procurement process has been undertaken in line with procurement law, UK and Welsh government policy and all required due diligence has been undertaken.” 

I’m not sure that’s a good enough explanation really. When the spokesperson was asked to explain in more detail why “regulation 57” (which covers this sort of thing) did not apply or was over-ruled here,  they “did not offer an explanation”.  I do think they should say more.

But conceptually it’s a tricky one. With my buyer’s hat on, do I really want to kick out what presumably is my best bidder because two possibly quite minor consortium members did something bad hundreds or thousands of miles away? On the other hand, we do have regulations for a purpose. 

In terms of the justification, having had a quick read of “regulation 57” (it’s some time since I studied “the regs”), I suspect the answer lies in the famous “self-cleaning” clause. That says, “Any economic operator that is in one of the situations referred to in paragraph (1) or (8) may provide evidence to the effect that measures taken by the economic operator are sufficient to demonstrate its reliability despite the existence of a relevant ground for exclusion”.

So basically, if a supplier can show that it has taken lots of steps to make sure it will never, ever get involved in bid-rigging again, or any of the other reasons for mandatory OR discretionary exclusion, and the buyer is naïve enough – sorry, I mean if the buyer analyses those declarations and decides they are valid, then the supplier is back in the game.

You can see the logic in this, but it is a bit of a “get out of jail” card really. It’s also another reason why in practice, we so rarely see suppliers barred. It will be interesting to see whether anything changes once the new Bill has been implemented – but I have my doubts. Barring is potentially just so fraught with hassle and risk.

As we are in the midst of the late spring conference season, I thought I would re-visit and update an article I wrote some years ago for the Spend Matters website. This is aimed primarily at solution providers who are speaking to a procurement audience, rather than procurement practitioners who might be speaking, although much of the advice is still applicable.

My definition of a “successsful” session is that the presenter gets across whatever message they aim to communicate, be that education, information, or a sales proposition, and the audience finds it worthwhile, ideally in terms of both enjoyment and usefulness in some sense.  Some direct or indirect leads resulting from the session would be even better. So here are my suggestions, based on my many hours of enjoyment and probably an equal amount of suffering at these events.

  1. The procurement audience is not really interested in the history of your business (unless it is REALLY fascinating), how many factories or offices you have around the world (particularly if you are speaking to managers who only operate in one city), or even the detail of your latest financial results. We will check out those things if and when we start to work with you.
  2. So keep the general background on the firm brief – when it was founded, approximately how big it is, what you do. Two minutes. The same applies to you personally. Two or three sentences about your background is enough. I’ve seen speakers spend half of their valuable time giving background that I guarantee no-one in the audience cares about.
  3. The audience does understand that you are there to promote your own firm, so don’t feel shy about doing so. But there are ways of making that interesting for the audience.  Detailed product / service descriptions are rarely a good use of time. Similarly, actual demos (of software for instance) often lose much of the audience and can easily go wrong. A few screen shots can be useful though.  If you have an exhibition stand at the event, you can offer to show delegates the product there.
  4. Think of the presentation in a similar way to the wider sales process. What is the problem or issue that the target audience is facing, and how does your offering help to solve that? Describe the issue, put it in context, explain why it matters, then outline how you can help. A little bit of looking to the future can be included and adds interest – “our new product, out later this year, will do this even better…”
  5. Don’t be afraid of making direct comparisons with your competition – but be honest of course. Even if a procurement executive sees the need, they will be wondering why they should buy your product and not someone else’s.  Don’t criticise the competition too directly, but feel free to say, “our product does this and this which no other competitor can provide”.  And there is nothing wrong with saying “we also have the lowest cost product on the market” if that is one of your selling points!
  6. If you work with many organisations on the buy side, you have an overview that each buyer may not have individually. That puts you in a good position to talk about broader issues, or the best practice you have observed, or provide “war stories” about positive or indeed negative things you have seen. Often, speakers only get into this when it comes to the questions, but that broader view can bring insight to the audience during the presentation.
  7. Surveys, reports and similar that your organisation has done or contributed to can provide interesting content – but be careful of the “so what” factor. The number of times I’ve heard a speaker saying “43% of procurement directors say they don’t have the right technology…”  Well yes, but so what? Check that anything of that nature is relevant to your message and genuinely interesting to the audience.
  8. The question and answer session should be key. Debate is good, you can reinforce some of your key points, and even find out if you have interested prospects in the audience. So leave enough time. In a 30-minute session, I suggest 5 minutes for the introduction (you will inevitably start 2 or 3 minutes late), 15 minutes of core content and 10 minutes for Q&A. Have a question you can put to the audience in case no-one volunteers – “I mentioned the issues with managing stakeholders in the health service –  has anyone found a good way of involving senior clinicians in these decisions”?
  9. Humour is fine if you can pull it off, but obviously be careful! Getting some involvement or reaction from for the audience early on is another tactic which increases participation and focus (personally, I find it also relaxes me as a speaker). If you don’t have a joke (a mildly amusing remark about something in the news can often work), maybe ask a question just to get some early engagement, relevant to your topic of course. “How many people here have sustainability as a key objective this year”? 
  10. Do a timed run through (even if it means talking to yourself on the train on the way to the event) to check the timing. There is nothing more frustrating than a speaker who says, “I’ve only got a few slides, I’ll speak for 10 minutes then we can have a good discussion” and then waffles on for half an hour.  Running out of time is amateurish and speaks of a lack or regard for the audience.
  11. Any slide that is on the screen for less than a minute or so is usually worthless (unless it is a clever, quick visual joke or something similar!) Equally, a slide with so much content packed onto it – words, charts, tables, diagrams – that no-one beyond the first row can read it is a waste of time too. If you have anything of a complex nature that you really want to communicate, put it on a hand-out. It is a personal thing, but I would tend to use between 8 and 10 slides for a 15-minute session. Trying to fit 30 slides into 15 minutes rarely works well.  Not using slides is fine too, but you need to be a really good and confident speaker to pull that off.
  12. Presenting does not come easy for everyone. But do try and bring some energy and enthusiasm to the session. You are in effect entertaining the audience as well as imparting something useful. If you look or sound like you don’t want to be here with us, or it is clear that you haven’t put much effort into the session, why should the audience bother listening or engaging?

If you have thought clearly about your session, prepared and rehearsed well, you will feel better and more confident. And that means the audience will have a better experience too. Good luck!