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Fairness in Procurement

Most people see government buying as something rather dull and bureaucratic, but get it wrong and it can cost the taxpayer a fortune.  So everyone should be interested in the new Procurement Bill published last week, which will define the regulations for UK public procurement.  We will have more on that here when I’ve read it properly and also considered what people smarter than me think of it!

One of the key principles of the new regulations is to give buyers more flexibility and freedom. But I do have a fear that could lead to more corruption if it allows crooks (whether politicians or public servants) to run dodgy procurement processes to favour their preferred supplier. However, the new approach will I believe still require contracting authorities to consider basic issues such as “fairness”. That is where a lot of the biggest failures in the past have arisen – such as described in the following extract from the Bad Buying book, describing a particualr case that cost the taxpayer over £100 million because of obvious bias and unfairness in the procurement process.  

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The case involved a 2016 legal challenge by Energy Solutions Ltd., the incumbent supplier for a huge contract to clean up de-commissioned UK nuclear power stations. They lost the tender, run by contracting authority the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in 2014, to a Babcock Fluor consortium (CFP).  But there were a number of mistakes made during the procurement process.

One related to “pass / fail thresholds”; areas where the NDA defined up-front that failure to meet certain conditions would lead to instant disqualification for the bidder. However, once bids were scored, it became clear that one supplier had failed to meet the threshold. But instead of chucking them out of the competition, the NDA decided to let them stay. Now this may all seem a little technical, but it is clearly unfair; and public procurement regulations really don’t like unfair buying processes.

As the judge said in his statement, you cant change your mind about the rules once you get into the buying process.  After a bidder has failed to meet a defined threshold, you can’t ask “was that threshold Requirement really that important?”, arrive at the conclusion that it was not, and then use that conclusion to justify increasing the score to a higher one than the content merited (or to justify failing to disqualify that bidder)”.

To disguise the failure of that firm, the NDA team also adjusted original scores given to the bidders during the marking process. But they failed to provide any audit trail or justification for these changes, a fact that became obvious through the trial. The NDA announced that CFP had won – which promoted the legal challenge. There were other issues too, and the final outcome saw the judge finding in favour of Energy Solutions, and the NDA agreeing to pay the firm (and their consortium partners Bechtel) almost £100 million to settle the legal claim for their loss of profit on the contract.

It is impossible to know what went on behind the scenes in cases like this.  Was it sheer ignorance of the rules? Was someone very senior determined a particular supplier should or should not win the contract? With other failures in previous chapters, a lack of understanding or knowledge caused the problem, but I’m left somewhat baffled here.

Certainly, a number of basic buying principles seemed to be forgotten. Treating bidders fairly is a good principle, whether you work for a government body that must do that legally, or for a private firm. Keeping sensible documentation to explain your decision is vital. That’s so you can explain to bidders why they won, or didn’t, but it is also a basic precaution against corruption and fraud, one that all organisations should take. If no-one can explain logically why my firm won a particular contract, then maybe it was because of the bulging brown envelope I was seen handing over to the senior buyer”.

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