Supercomputer – Not Very Super Procurement
We started the New Year with an expensive error made in UK government procurement. Atos, the large French technology firm, were paid £25 million after the firm complained about the decision to award Microsoft the £850 million contract for a new Meteorological Office super-computer. Most of the cash was paid by the government’s Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy with the Met Office itself stumping up the rest.The language is often the same when this sort of case drops into the public domain. No-one is to blame. “There was no admission of liability”, said the government here.
That begs the question of course – why pay £25 million if you didn’t do anything wrong? Clearly, the government’s legal advisers must have thought there was a very high probability that Atos would have won if the case had come in front of a judge, and might have been awarded substantially more in damages.
The best description of the dispute I found is on The Register website. A fairly technical and technological issue around the specification of the computer and the solution proposed by Atos led to the French firm receiving a score of 0/5 for several evaluation questions and their bid being declared in effect “non-compliant”. Then, as the Register reported, “It was also alleged the government was “disproportionate” in ruling its bid non-compliant without seeking further clarification on the architectural equivalence of the Atos system”.
Eliminating a serious bidder on a complex specification issue is rarely a good idea in my experience. You need to be absolutely sure the bid really does not meet your spec, and I would certainly have wanted “further clarification” from Atos before I took the drastic step of kicking them out of the competition. Poor judgement at the very least on the buy-side. Or maybe somebody just didn’t want Atos to win and was looking for an excuse to disqualify them (yes, that does happen…)
There was then an interesting debate on Twitter about the case too. Duncan Jones, the highly respected expert who led who led the procurement practice at research firm Forrester until he “retired” last year, was rather angry about this money ending up with Atos. If a company is on the wrong end of a bad piece of procurement by a private sector firm, the disappointed bidder doesn’t get recompensed, he said. So why should it be different in the public sector, with our money going straight into the profits of Atos (and others).
It is a fair point. But my argument is that you must have some way for bidders to highlight when there has been incompetent or even corrupt public sector procurement. And if they have lost millions because of that, why shouldn’t they be able to get something back? Otherwise I do think we would see more nepotism and even criminality in public procurement, with politicians, advisers and public officials acting in their own interests rather than those of the taxpayer. If the procurement rules did not have the “teeth “ provided by bidders’ right to challenge decisions, I think we would see lots of cases that would make the UK pandemic PPE procurement experience look like a model of probity and effectiveness!
However, I think Duncan made a fair point about how much compensation should be payable in cases like this. Working out “loss of profit” is an inexact art, and many suppliers make very low margin on big government contracts. So £25 million does sound on the generous side; but as I say, the lawyers must have felt the amount could have been a lot more if the dispute has continued.
At the early stages of development of the new UK Procurement Bill, I seem to remember that there were some major changes proposed around supplier challenges, compensation and so on. Introducing the scope for a less legalistic dispute resolution process was one idea I liked (some countries have a “procurement ombudsman” which is an interesting idea), alongside less scope for big supplier pay-outs. The proposals seemed interesting, but I believe most of those have gone now from the draft legislation, and the Bill is not going to drastically change the current situation.
Finally though, the point to remember is this. If an unhappy potential supplier ends up being paid lots of money, it is ALWAYS because there has been a failure in the procurement process. Don’t blame the supplier – look at what went wrong on the buyer side. In the case of this Met Office supercomputer, it may have been something rather complex around the specification. But it was still a failure, another case of Bad Buying, and one that has cost us £25 million.
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