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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflicts of interest as a ethical topic has always been relevant in procurement, both public and private sector. Here is a quick quote from my book, Bad Buying.

At a local level, I’ve worked with organisations whose top management didn’t even want to put in place a clear “conflict of interest” policy. That would mean staff having to disclose any interest they (or close family / friends) have in another business that might be a supplier or a customer of the organisation for which they work. But there’s usually a reason for that hesitancy.  Where you see organisations that won’t support anti-corruption activities, then you might draw obvious conclusions”.

Conflict of interest is a key issue within the fight against procurement-related fraud and corruption. We want buyers and everyone involved in the process to select suppliers, negotiate and manage contracts without being biased because they have an external interest that affects their behaviour.

We’ve seen these issues come up a number of times over the last 18 months through the pandemic with spend on products such as PPE (personal protective equipment) being in the public eye. So some recipients of huge contracts for PPE have had links with politicians and other powerful people, which has led to suggestions that decisions were impacted by these conflicts of interest.

The standard approach when developing procurement policies and practices is to ask those involved in the process to declare any potential conflicts upfront. Somebody can then decide if that is significant, and if so, how to handle that. At the extreme, I’d suggest it might eliminate a potential supplier from consideration completely. That doesn’t happen often, but appointing a small consulting firm to do a procurement review when that firm is run by the Procurement Director’s wife might not be a good idea.

But more frequently, it is a case of making sure the person with the conflict does not play a central role in key stages of the process, such as selecting the supplier or negotiating the contract. Suppose a senior executive who has an interest in the service being purchased discloses that their sister is a senior manager in one of the bidding firms. I would not expect that firm to be disqualified, but the executive should not be involved in the key aspects of the procurement. There are potential issues of confidentiality as well as bias of course – so if the exec is going to have access to confidential information, then they need to understand that any breach will lead to disciplinary action! Or you may simply choose to keep such information away from them.

There are questions however about how far we can and should go. That came to mind with the revelations around Mathew Hancock, the UK Health Minister who resigned because he broke covid rules with his ”friend”. But another part of that report claimed that his friend’s brother runs a firm that has won NHS contracts.

Is that a worry?  If your friend’s brother is bidding for a contract with your organisation, do you need to declare that as a potential conflict of interest?  That probably depends on just how close the “friend” is. If they are in effect a partner (legally or secretly) then it probably should be declared. But frankly, I would very rarely have known what any of my friends’ siblings did for a living!  So we have to be reasonable in terms of how meaningful the risk is.

A similar argument applies to shareholdings. Most of us hold shares indirectly through pension schemes or investment funds and we may well have direct holdings too. We can’t be expected to know exactly where “our” money is invested in every case. But what about if I have just a couple of hundred pounds worth of shares held directly in a potential supplier? I’d suggest that it is sensible to declare that, but I would not necessary exclude someone from the process for that level of “conflict”. However, if it were several thousand pounds worth, or if we were considering share options in a start-up that could prove valuable one day, the position might be different.

These are tricky issues.  The key is to impress on everyone that if they are in any doubt, it is better to declare the potential conflict and let others decide how serious it is. That is much better than having to plead later on that “I didn’t realise it mattered”. 

And if you want to hear more about this and related topics, I’m speaking as part of a CIPS (Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) webinar on July 13th, 2021, at 12.30 pm. It is all about ethics and is titled “50 shades of Procurement – an Ethical Perspective”.  It should be interesting – and it is open to CIPS members AND non-members, so anyone can book here.

(The picture shows my cycling friends enjoying an outing with me last year – no contracts were awarded!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The court found this week that Michael Gove, Cabinet Office Minister, broke procurement law when a contract was awarded without competition to Public First, a research and communications agency. As the BBC reported, “The government acted unlawfully when it awarded a £560,000 contract to a firm run by former colleagues of Michael Gove and the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings, the High Court has ruled”.

This goes back to the Dominic Cummings era in the initial pandemic days of early 202. Some will feel that speed was everything at that point – but it is not like contracting for a series of market research focus groups was a matter of urgent life and death, unlike maybe PPE or ventilator procurement.

But in this case, the court found the contract award appeared to show favouritism as Public First had worked with Gove and Cummings previously, and the judge said this; “The defendant’s failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision-maker was biased.”

One founder of Public First formerly worked as an adviser to Mr Gove and for Mr Cummings, and co-wrote the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto. The other had worked alongside both men in the Department of Education. However, the judge rejected two other claims – that the direct award of the contract was “unnecessary” and that the 6-month contract length was disproportionate. So both sides can claim victory here.

Cummings thinks procurement rules are ridiculous and damaging.  Indeed, many senior people – official, special advisers and politicians – feel that they are bureaucratic and can slow down necessary actions.  There is some truth in that, and some of these people also genuinely believe that their own judgment is quite enough to make decisions on which suppliers can best carry out work.

The problem is that this approach shows at best a considerable degree of arrogance, quite a large degree in some cases. And it would be helpful if everyone understood better exactly why we have rules in public procurement. There are three good reasons.

  • The most obvious perhaps is the danger of fraud and corruption. I doubt very much whether anyone received brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash in this case. But if we don’t have processes, with openness and transparency, then the dangers of that becoming more common will rise.
  • Public procurement processes are also designed to help achieve the best possible outcome for the citizen and taxpayer. Competition is the key driver of that.  We will never know if other firms could have done as good a job as Public First for half or a tenth of the price – or a much better job for the same cost. When you don’t have competition, you can’t look at alternatives and you don’t have competitive pressure in terms of value. Even if the requirement is urgent, some competition, even if limited and rapid, is much better than none.
  • The final point is the least understood driver for proper public procurement – that it encourages healthy markets and successful economies. If firms know they will always have a chance of winning public sector contracts, they are encouraged to invest, to innovate, to provide better service. But if public markets are closed, or corrupt, or based on who you know rather than what you can do, then what is the point of trying to be better? Don’t spend a million in improving your product – spend it on getting an ex-Minister as a “consultant” to open doors, or on “research trips” to California for officials and advisers, or simply on bribes.

The last point is very evident in the countries that have the greatest corruption problems. Why would any start-up bother trying to win public sector work fairly in Venezuela, Somalia or Yemen (choosing three of the back-markers in the Transparency International Corruption Perception index)? You invest in corrupt practices to succeed.

We may think that the UK, US and other developed nations don’t have similar problems, but that would be naïve (read Bad Buying for a few examples…)  So whilst many will dismiss the Public First case as a storm in a £500K teacup, we need to hold politicians and others to account, and continue to emphasise that there are very good reasons for doing public procurement properly.

Have you seen the price of compost this spring? I reckon it has close to doubled – three large bags from Longacres garden centre last year cost £10 (for 180 litres). Now, you will get just 100L for the same price.

Talk to a local builder, or gardener, or fencing expert, and they will tell you of shortages in markets such as timber, cement and other basic but vital materials. In another market altogether, farmers are complaining about a lack of workers to harvest crops, and restaurants of a lack of waiting and kitchen staff. Some are having to increase wages or other benefits to attract staff.

Without going into all the causes (Brexit, pandemic, lockdown-influenced career decisions), there is one very likely outcome here – inflation. There are already some warning signs, and consumer prices in the US jumped 4.2% in the 12 months through to April, up from 2.6% in March and marking the biggest increase since September 2008.  That seemed to take inflation from warning mode into “this is actually happening”.  But many economists believe the effect will be short-term, a blip rather than anything that becomes established.

But we can’t be sure of that. One test is whether price rises for materials and commodities then drive wage inflation, which can result in the sort of inflationary spiral we have seen in the past. But in any case, it seems likely that many procurement professionals will be facing a difficult time in terms of the cost of what they are buying. And for the younger members of the procurement community, this might be the first time they have faced suppliers coming in with demands for significant, maybe double-digit price increases.  

Those of us of an earlier vintage may even remember the days of the mid-70s, during which UK retail prices doubled over about 5 years. After moderating slightly, inflation picked up again and in 1980, my first full year as a graduate trainee with Mars Confectionery, inflation hit 18%.  Great for making your pay rise look impressive, less good for buyers. Suppliers often demanded massive price increases, and buyers would go to their boss and say, “good news, I’ve negotiated a great deal – the price is only going up 10%”!

If inflation does take off, it will also put pressure on all those procurement functions that aren’t really that capable, but have had an easy time over the recent years of low inflation, when claiming “savings” has been relatively easy. However, “cost avoidance” is never a totally convincing argument and will be even harder in an inflationary world when the CFO can see real bottom line costs spiralling.

There will also be a dilemma around locking in prices. If you think inflation has further to run, this might prove to be a very good time to negotiate long-term contracts and lock-in prices now with suppliers. On the other hand, if this is a “blip”, agreeing £5 a bag for compost now might look really silly if it is back to £3 by Christmas!  There is no right or wrong answer to this – but you will need to think carefully about the right approach, which in many case means balancing risk, cost and security of supply.

So this will be a real test for many procurement people and teams. If you want to avoid inflation driven “bad buying”, then here are three quick tips. There is much more that can be done of course, but these strike me as useful and sensible whatever your situation.

  • Market and supplier research is more important than ever in this situation. Suppliers will tell you all sorts of “facts” about the market, prices and so on. You need to be as well informed as them (better, if possible) so you can respond and understand what the real situation is.
  • Think carefully about your negotiation strategy – and if negotiations get tough, go back to basics. As well as research, look carefully at your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), try and improve it quickly if it is week, and look at the range of negotiation preparation and approaches that might work. You don’t have to accept price increases – but you need to know how you would respond if your hard-ball negotiation really ends up with the supplier walking away.
  • That includes looking beyond price – are there other benefits you can offer the supplier maybe in return for better pricing? Or if you end up accepting some price increase, can you agree some other wins for your organisation (payment terms, additional services, etc).

There is a lot more we could say, of course, but that’s a start at least and might stimulate some thinking. Meanwhile I’m redoubling my efforts to create home-made compost. (We do have no less than four large compost bins and two “heaps”)!

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

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

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

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(But a Government procurement leader joining a supplier while still working as a civil servant is!)

In my last article about fraud related to supply chain finance (which came to mind because of the emerging Greensill / Gupta developments), I said that I hadn’t come across that type of fraud previously. There are plenty of other variants on invoice-related fraud in my book, however.

That brought a call from a friend. He told me of a case he had seen where a business created fake invoices to “clients” and used those invoices to obtain funding from their supply chain finance (SCF) provider. The amusing angle was that the finance provider was a major bank, and the fake invoices included a number that were supposedly issued to the same bank!

So the finance was provided by a bank on the basis of non-existent delivery of goods or services to the same bank … you might have thought that someone would have spotted this or checked to see if the supposed supplier was in their AP system. But perhaps they did, given the fraud was discovered eventually! You also wonder whether the fraudster was stupid, secretly wanted to be caught or was just having a laugh at the expense of the bank itself.

Exploring this theme further, it is clear that supply chain finance related fraud is not new. Just last year, a major scandal in Singapore saw the Him Leong oil trading company collapse. Part of that was down to false invoicing and over stating of receivables, which enabled the firm to obtain financing based on these invoices.

As the spglobal website reported, “financial statements for the year ended 31 October 2019 grossly overstated the value of assets by “an astonishing amount of at least $3 billion” comprising $2.23 billion in accounts receivables which had no prospect of recovery and $0.8 billion in inventory shortfalls”.

There are also cases that are not overtly “fraudulent” but are misleading. When leading UK construction and facilities management firm Carillion collapsed in 2017, the use of supply chain finance was one of the ways it concealed its problems until the final reckoning.  Carillion worked with Santander bank to offer its suppliers payment earlier than its ridiculous 120-day standard payment terms (in return for a fee, of course). Santander then retained the money it owed for the full period.

Globalconstructionnews website reported that “Carillion tucked the cash managed through reverse factoring into the box labelled “trade and other payables”, to which it had added “other creditors”. This, believes S&P, allowed it to show a modest increase in working capital from 2012 to 2016, because “working capital” does not usually include trade payables.  After 2012, the growth in money owed under trade payables ballooned from £263m that year to £761m in 2016. Reverse factoring, said S&P, allowed Carillion to “hide a substantial part of its debt from view”.

To widen the discussion to fraud generally, I believe that Boards, CFOs and CPOs should regularly ask themselves, “how would I defraud this organisation if I was an evil criminal genius”? Or maybe employ an actual evil criminal genius consultant to do that for them (I’m available at very reasonable evil genius rates). Read most of the cases I quote in the Bad Buying book, and you realise that any intelligent insider could have spotted the flaw in process that allowed the fraud, if only they had spent some time thinking about that.

However, the problem with much SCF related fraud or dubious practice is that it is almost always an internally generated fraud. It might involve third parties, innocent or not so innocent, but it is often driven by very senior people in the business, or even owners and founders. So there would not have been much point asking the Board of Carillion to look at the use of SCF if they were complicit in the  bad practice. If it is found that the Gupta companies did issue fake invoices to generate SCF funding  from Greensill, then no doubt that will have originated at a pretty high level in the business.

Meanwhile, back to other aspects of the Greensill affair, and yesterday we saw newspaper revelations that Bill Crothers actually joined Greensill two or three months before he left the civil service, while he was still Chief Commercial Officer for the UK government. Such a move seems very odd but it was all signed off within the Cabinet Office, apparently.  That seems to show very poor judgement at best from Crothers, and perhaps the judgment of the experienced top-level civil servants who approved this was even more suspect. More to come on all this, I’m sure.

We wrote about the collapse of Greensill Capital here, and more information has emerged on a daily basis over the last couple of weeks. It seems increasingly clear that the talk of innovative new supply chain finance models was nonsense, concealing some old-fashioned dodgy lending to unstable companies. (after I drafted this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others, including Bill Crothers and Jereny Heywood, head of the civil service).

For instance, Greensill’s financing of the Gupta group of companies was based (in part at least) on a notional future income stream. But there were no actual orders, no contracts and not even any named customers in some cases! That is a million miles away from traditional invoice factoring. The way this very high risk lending was then dressed up and sold by firms such as Credit Suisse as low-risk bonds will I suspect keep the courts occupied over coming years.

But another interesting aspect has been the role played by the UK’s ex-Prime Minster David Cameron. He appointed Lex Greensill as his “crown commercial representative” for supply chain finance back in 2014. Greensill got his CBE in 2017 and Cameron then took up a role as an adviser to the firm when he left office. His share options were rumoured to be worth tens of millions. Last year, he is alleged to have lobbied the Treasury and the chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to try and obtain government grants and loans for Greensill. To the credit of senior civil servants, most of Greensill’s applications were refused.

That has led to questions about the propriety and ethics of Cameron’s intervention. But it raises some broader questions too. In an excellent article in the Sunday Times (behind the paywall unfortunately), columnist Mathew Syed raises the general issue of ex-politicians and their activities post-politics.

For instance, as Syed says, “ Robert Rubin, former US Treasury secretary, helped introduce a law that allowed banks to merge with insurance firms, something lobbied for by Citibank. He left the Treasury the day after the law was passed and, three months after that, was hired by — you guessed it — Citibank. He earned $126 million (£91 million) over eight years as the bank loaded up on risk, then used his connections to secure $45 billion in taxpayer bailouts when it failed”.

The former Danish Prime Minster Thorning-Schmidt says that she is still independent, despite co-chairing Facebook’s Oversight Board. But she now argues that an aggressive regulatory approach could “infringe freedom of speech”.  She won’t say how much she is being paid in this role – but we know that Nick Clegg, ex leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, now VP of Global Affairs at the firm is on something around $1 million a year. Ex UK Chancellor Philip Hammond now has 14 jobs including with the finance minister of Saudi Arabia, whilst his predecessor George Osborne has nine jobs including at the world’s largest investment firm.

Syed points out that what we are seeing is dangerous and calls this sort of process “retroactive inducements”. It is undermining our faith in capitalism and democracy as politicians see that their route to future wealth is to help market incumbents, Syed argues. “Unconsciously or otherwise, the revolving door is lubricated”.

I would slightly disagree with Syed in that it does not need to be an “incumbent” – Greensill was a relatively new market entrant. But the concern is that those in positions of power might see future benefits coming to them if they do favours for a firm now.

It’s not just the politicians…

And of course it is not just Cameron and co that we should worry about. Bill Crothers became vice-chairman of Greensill having been government’s Chief Commercial Officer from 2012-15.  Now I don’t think for a moment Crothers did particular favours for Greensill in that role – I didn’t pick up any hint of that at the time. In fact, I have heard it suggested that Crothers may have actually put money into Greensill himself, so may be a personal creditor.

But you can see the danger here of senior decision makers looking to their futures.  I know it is an issue in the Ministry of Defence. So many senior people, particularly uniformed mid-level officers who leave the forces in their forties or fifties, end up working for defence suppliers. Are they tempted to help those firms whilst they are public servants, or be gentle with them if they are a contract manager with the firm as a supplier, because of what they might get in the future?

Syed calls for change. The solutions are simple, he says.  He wants “stronger constraints on lobbying and donations, together with new rules on monopolies and moral hazard. Crucially, we should also raise the pay of ministers and regulators, with the quid pro quo of longer periods that prevent them from working for corporations after leaving office”.  I don’t agree that these are “simple” issues though – higher pay for Ministers would not go down well with many! But he is absolutely right when he says this.

Above all, though, we need a transformation in values of the kind that has (partially) changed medicine. For until seemingly decent people can see that their actions are unethical, we cannot hope to win. It is, I think, the only way to save capitalism from itself”.

And I would extend that beyond politicians, to the ranks of the senior public, military and civil service too. If key people are constantly thinking about what might be in it for them at some future stage of their career, we’ve got big problems.

(On the day I published this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others including Bill Crothers and the late Jeremy Heywood, ex-head of the civil service. So we may come back to this story again once I have digested that!)

There have been interesting developments in terms of procurement of PPE in several European countries.   Last month, the Times reported that magistrates in Italy had ordered the seizure of property worth more than €70 million (£60 million) including a yacht, a Harley-Davidson motorbike, watches and several apartments from eight middlemen.  They are accused of exploiting the desperate shortages of PPE last year at the height of the pandemic.

The allegation suggests that a group of businessmen earned commissions worth €72 million on the purchase of 800 million facemasks from China. Those masks cost the Italian government some €1.2 billion. The suspects are accused of “illicit influence trafficking, receipt of stolen property and money laundering”. There is some cronyism involved here too. One of the accused is Mario Benotti, 56, a journalist and general director of two technology companies, and someone who knew Domenico Arcuri, 57, the Covid commissioner.  But Benotti says that he intervened to help his country and because Arcuri asked him to.  He acknowledges getting €12 million but says he earned it.

It has to be said that a margin or commission of €72 million sounds a lot. But on a spend of over a billion, that is “only” 6%.  Is that really exploitation?  A BBC Panorama programme this week suggested that firms such as Ayanda Capital made significantly more than that supplying the UK with PPE – a margin of 15.8% according to Tim Horlick, the boss. But in any case, if 800 million masks cost €1.2,  that is €1.5 per mask, which shows just how crazy the market got last year.

In Germany, the scandal is deeper and more shocking. Several leading politicians have been forced to resign because of the money they made personally from the pandemic shortages. Earlier this month, two members of the parliament and of Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU party resigned this week because of the scandal.

It appears that Georg Nüßlein and Nikolas Löbel both personally profited from government contracts for face masks. Löbel is alleged to have received €250,000 in payments for brokering a deal between a Chinese supplier of masks and the German cities of Heidelberg and Mannheim. Nüßlein is accused of making €660,000 through a consultancy firm for lobbying the government on behalf of a supplier. Mark Hauptmann, from the eastern state of Thuringia, is the latest to go. He is stepping down due to his alleged links concerning medical supplies and Azerbaijan. It all seems somewhat opaque, but Hauptmann has admitted that Azerbaijan and other countries paid for adverts in a newspaper he publishes.

Coming back to the UK, we also don’t know if any of our politicians took their cut for promoting PPE suppliers onto the “VIP” path, which greatly enhanced the firms’ chances of winning contracts. We still don’t know how Ayanda Capital and others were chosen to be awarded contracts, or why each got the size of contract they did.  This week, the BBC Panorama programme looked at how some very odd firms won huge contracts or acted as facilitators, such as an upmarket dogfood business! It also exposed that details of some contracts awarded last spring and summer have still not been published.

But there only four possible options in terms of the process used in the UK to select suppliers.  

1. There was an actual selection process. I don’t mean the due diligence assurance which was carried out once a firm had been chosen – I mean the process for choosing which firm would get which volume. But if there was such a process, we still don’t know what it was.

2. It was random. All the names in a hat …

3. It was literally first come, first served. The first firms that got their offers in won the work, until all the volume needed was covered.

4. It was fundamentally corrupt.  

We still don’t know which of these is the most accurate explanation, and until we do, we can’t rule out the possibility of more scandal emerging in the UK, as we have seen in these other nations. This story isn’t dead yet.

(I asked CCS if they wanted to comment on this article and they said no).

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) is the central buying organisation for the UK government – particularly used by central departments, although any other public body (councils, hospitals, universities etc.) can use their contracts and frameworks too. It does some good work and employs a lot of hard working, smart procurement people. But sometimes it gets it badly wrong, as it has with the new management consulting procurement process.

Bids from potential suppliers are now in for the latest iteration of their Management Consultancy Framework, MCF3 as it is known. It is split into 10 Lots, ranging through general “business”, functional areas including procurement, and high-level topics such as “strategy”. Suppliers can bid for all or any of the Lots.

I have looked at the way the Lots and evaluation process are structured, and the way it is designed looks at first sight very strange. However, if you believe that it is aimed at meeting four key objectives, then it is quite sensible. Those objectives do not, unfortunately, include “delivering value for the taxpayer”.  

Instead, they appear to be:

  1. Make sure the big firms (McKinsey,  Deloitte, BCG, PWC etc) win a place on the more “strategic” Lots 2, 3 and 4 for strategy, finance and transformation work.  Why is it essential that these firms are successful?  Simply because Ministers and senior civil servants want to use those firms, and CCS itself relies on the commission it gets from sales through its frameworks to fund itself. If they weren’t available via CCS, budget holders would find another way to engage those firms and CCS would lose revenue.  
  2. Make sure those firms get onto the framework without having to offer particularly competitive prices, so they will be happy to put senior people onto government work without worrying about the rates.  
  3. Ensure that there are a large number of “SMEs” (smaller firms) who win a place on the MCF. Ministers can then supposedly support the small business agenda and announce that “over 50% of the firms selected are small firms”.
  4. But also make sure there is no need for any government department to actually use any of these small, lower cost firms.

So if these are indeed the objectives, how has CCS given itself the best chance of achieving this?

A Dodgy Price Evaluation

The way price is evaluated is a major factor here. So Lot 1 is general “business”, and up to 75 suppliers will be appointed to this Lot. Here, when the bidders “price” is evaluated, it is weighted at 90% of the total marks available. But the other 10% is just a tick box to say you will deliver the services (which is odd in itself – why would I be bidding otherwise?)

Price is calculated as the median of the prices offered for the 6 grades, from junior consultant up to Partner level. So basically, this is purely a price selection. The cheapest firms, which will be small firms that few of us will have ever heard of, will win a place. And because no-one has heard of them, and (in some cases at least) they are not very good, which is why they are cheap, they won’t be used much. But CCS and Ministers will have lots of SMEs on the list to boast about.

So then how does CCS make sure that the big firms succeed? For Lots 2, 3 and 4, price is only weighted at 10% of the total marks.  The rest come from essay-type questions in which the firms have to show extensive capability. There is plenty of scope for some flexibility in the marking too, and given the low weighting, price barely matters.   I would bet my mortgage that the “usual suspects” will all win places here.  

But just to make sure that those firms don’t have to worry about not making enough money, the price on which marking is based is not calculated as the average (the mean) of the 6 grades, which would seem to be a logical approach, or a weighted average rate based on likely frequency of use of each grade. Instead, it is the average of just two grades, the two “middle” ones (senior consultant and principal consultant / associate director). Actually, that would seem to be the same as the “median” price which is how Lot 1 is defined – it is not clear why different terminology is used.

So that means you don’t have to worry much about the price you put in for Partner. There is one more constraint in that for each grade, the price must be between 10 and 50% lower than the grade above.  But that isn’t too much of a hardship – for instance, you could put in this bid:

FIRM A

Partner                               £6000 a day

Director                              £3000

Principal consultant        £1500

Senior consultant             £1300

Consultant                          £1150

Analyst                                £1000

Your score would be based on the average of £1300 and £1500, so that is £1400, which is probably not too out of line with many bids. But once you win a contract, you can legitimately put your Partners in at £6K a day!

This is an “Illegal” Evaluation Methodology

There is also a technical/legal issue here, in that your evaluation score could be the same as another bid that puts in much lower rates for the top two grades (or indeed the lowest two), as long as you offer the same rates for those two in the middle. That seems to break fundamental rules of public procurement, that you have to make “value” your selection factor and you have to show you have a “fair” process.  So Firm B (below) scores fewer points in the evaluation than firm A, even though their pricing is much better value overall!

FIRM B

Partner                               £2000 a day

Director                              £1750

Principal consultant        £1500

Senior consultant             £1320

Consultant                          £900

Analyst                                £600

I can think of no reason why the average of the 6 grades has not been used – other than to help the big firms charge a fortune for their Partners. Unless I’ve missed something here, it feels like either a real error or there is something odd going on. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but you do sometimes wonder if there is some sort of plan for certain firms to suck as much money as possible out of the public purse at the moment?   

This is the Argos Catalogue, not a “Framework”

Finally, there is another somewhat technical issue, in that users of the framework who want to choose a supplier for an individual project should (to be legally compliant) in most cases invite all the suppliers listed in the Lot to bid. But if you have to ask 75 firms (Lot 1) or even 30 firms (Lots 2 to 6 ) to put in proposals, that is quite a workload to manage and evaluate.

So I suspect CCS assumes that many users will just choose their favourites from the list, even if this technically breaks the regulations. We’re going back to the old days when I worked in government in the 1990s and that was how frameworks were generally used. Budget holders just picked their favourites from a preferred supplier list. The approach didn’t deliver value for money for the taxpayer then, and it doesn’t now.

But again, having such extensive lists of suppliers ensures that there is plenty of choice on the framework for users, so CCS maximises its own revenues. I’m afraid that looks like a major driver here, along with keeping Ministers, budget holders and the big firms happy.

What Does the Lord Think?

I do also wonder what Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office Minister, thinks of this, or if he is even aware of what is going on. It was Agnew who wrote to senior civil  servants last September telling them to “rein in spending on consultants” and that Whitehall was being “infantilised” by their over-use. 

But when you see headlines in a year or two about “firms charging £6K a day for consultants”, you know why. Basically, the government, through Crown Commercial Service, has designed its procurement process to allow that. This is all very disappointing, given the undoubted talent of the people in CCS involved in this exercise.

PS  Buying consulting services based on a “day rate” model is almost always the wrong way to do it, anyway. More on that another day.

PPS There is no mention of “social value” in the tender either.