Tag Archive for: Competition

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.

Why are prices so high in many countries, including the UK? Global forces and events are part of it, but there is increasing evidence that firms providing goods and services are increasing profit margins at the expense of the consumer. This week’s report on petrol prices in the UK from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) was an example of this. Calculations show that margins have increased over the last three years and we are all being ripped off to the tune of some 6p per litre. Competition was “not working as well as it should be” said the CMA.

But surely, in a dynamic, capitalist society, excess profits leads to new market entrants, who compete on price and undercut the current providers, whilst still making an adequate return?  The economists would agree that this is the case – but only in a perfect market. And you need certain conditions for that, including that it must be reasonably easy for new entrants to establish themselves.

That is the problem here and in many other markets. For a number of reasons, there are so many things we all buy where we just don’t see real, strong competition, because it is almost impossible for new entrants to break into a market.  Look at petrol retailing. Finding new sites and getting planning permission would be a nightmare. The capital cost of building the premises would be huge, with all the legislation (quite rightly) around petrol storage and handling adding to the burden.

Look at how difficult it has proved for new retail banks to break into a market still dominated by firms that have been around for centuries – even though most consumers don’t rate those providers very highly.  We haven’t had any new supermarket chains in the UK for some 30 years now since Aldi and Lidl (who were already long established elsewhere) started here. Again, the barriers to entry, from planning issues to up-front cost, as well as the financial power of the incumbent firms, all make it very tough.

So we have the cost of entering a market, legislative burdens and incumbent power as key barriers to entry. Geography is another; I’m not going to drive another 10km each way to buy slightly cheaper petrol, and lose all my “savings” on the extra mileage!

But particularly when we come back to corporate procurement, some of the market dominance we see has been caused in apart by the actions of customers and indeed of procurement professionals. I gave five examples of the ways in which this happens in terms of corporate procurement in the Bad Buying book. Here are the first two.

1. Buyers aggressively aggregate their own spend, believing they’ll get better deals if they offer bigger contracts – until in some industries, only the largest can meet our needs. Buyers might insist that suppliers must service every office or factory across the US, or Europe. Smaller firms and start-ups, who often offer real innovation, flexibility and service, are shut out of the market.
Buyers assume economies of scale, that “bigger is better” and bigger deals mean lower prices. But that is not necessarily true; the price curve may flatten after a certain volume, with further increases in volume not generating any further price reduction. There are even cases where you  see dis-economies of scale – the buyer pays more as the they spend more.


2. Buyers value consistency above innovation and experimentation. At times, you should value tried and tested solutions over exciting new ideas. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the flight, this is the very first plane to be fitted with an exciting new automatic pilot system, and we will be turning it on once we’re airborne”.  You might not want to hear that!
But take caution too far, and you help create markets dominated by a few large suppliers, with increased risk of buyers suffering from dependence. That’s relevant in private firms and perhaps more so in government, where risk aversion from employees and politicians means companies get into dominant positions because buyers “know” they’re a safe choice. That doesn’t always work out – Serco and Capita seemed to be safe for major UK government work, until both ran into severe financial difficulties. More willingness to engage with other initially smaller suppliers over the years could have created a more dynamic market.

Whilst we may not be able to do anything much personally about the supermarkets dominance of the petrol (and groceries) markets, we can take actions to mitigate the risk that we accidentally help to create monopolies or oligopolies in our business (procurement) lives. We should aways be thinking about how we can contribute to dynamic, competitive markets, with new entrants regularly arriving to put pressure on established firms. That’s the healthy situation that we should hope for and work towards where we can.

The new UK public procurement legislation has been laid out in a Bill now which is being discussed and revised in the House of Lords. Leaving aside political comments, most independent experts, particularly the procurement academics and lawyers, see it as being somewhere in the range between “mildly disappointing” and “mildly positive”.  (Read an excellent assessment from Professor Sanchez-Graells here and a useful set of proposals for improvement from the UK Anti-corruption Coalition here).

I suspect that is inevitable. Public procurement aims to meet several different objectives, but sadly these are not all congruent – we can’t have it all. Public procurement has to balance:

  • Achieving fundamental value for money in what is being purchased – getting the right blend of quality and cost that enables the taxpayer to feel their money is being spent carefully and sensibly to generate the desired policy outcomes.
  • Minimising the chances of fraud or corruption by making such actions difficult or easily detected.
  • Encouraging innovative, dynamic, competitive markets – not just to help achieve future value for money in public spend, but because that will help the wider economy too.
  • Contributing towards wider UK government and societal objectives – economic, social, environmental or, as we now see, more overtly “political” in nature. (Using public procurement to support the government’s “levelling up” agenda for example is the type of political objective we’ve never really seen before in public procurement). 
  • Doing all of this in manner that keeps the transactional cost for both buyer and supplier to acceptable levels.

The problem is that these objectives can be conflicting. Simplify processes and deregulate, and you may reduce transactional cost and stimulate markets, but it will inevitably increase the chance of fraud and corruption. Focus more on the “social value” benefits, and if you are not careful, you will jeopardise basic value for money. And so on.

So it is impossible to keep everyone happy with regulations, and this is why it is difficult to assess the long-term effects of the new Bill. It will be at least two years before we see how the different objectives are being met or not met.

Perhaps the element that has most potential for transformation, but is also a major area of uncertainty, is the freedom for contracting authorities (CAs) to design new procurement processes. Will we see innovative and effective new ideas emerging, including innovative use of technology? Or will CAs quickly default to the “recommended” standard options that Cabinet Office are going to provide?

No doubt we’ll be writing further about this topic as the Bill proceeds into law, and there are some key areas where I’m not clear yet about the likely implications. The proposals on the role of technology, and the whole transparency area both have some positive aspects, for instance, but the devil is in the detail. However, here are a few predictions to be going on with.  

  1. The Cabinet Office standard processes will look pretty similar to the previous EU procedures, but with a bit more “negotiation” added in. But there will be so many caveats and warnings about (e.g.) equal treatment for suppliers that CAs will only use negotiation very cautiously…
  2. … unless they are running a corrupt procurement, where somebody in a powerful position wants a particular supplier to win. But of course that NEVER happens in the UK(!!)  I’m afraid we will see increasing corruption in public procurement, not just because of the greater freedoms, but because moral and ethical standards in the country are eroding from the top down.  
  3. Some lawyers are getting excited about the new rules on exclusion (mainly because of their complexity) that enable buyers to ban firms from bidding. But they will prove to be largely theoretical and decorative. I can’t imagine many hard-pressed procurement directors looking at the really complicated regulations for exclusions and saying anything other than “OK, let’s forget about this”.  (See Pedro Telles on this).
  4. Within a year or two, we will see suppliers complaining that the new rules don’t seem to have simplified public procurement.  I’m not criticising the Cabinet Office policy folk here – I’m just not sure it is possible to really simplify matters whilst trying to meet all those different goals. And no, I don’t have amazing transformative ideas myself, to be honest.
  5. Many older / less flexible public procurement professionals will retire or move out of the sector. “I’ve done things this way for 10/20/30 years, I just can’t be bothered with the hassle of learning all this new stuff now”.  I’m already hearing of that issue, and we will see a staffing crisis in public procurement (unless we go into a major recession that releases private sector professionals!)
  6. Given points 1 and 5, we will see more and more use of frameworks let by collaborative buying organisations, (Crown Commercial Services, YPO, NHSSC etc).  Unfortunately this is probably not good news for supply chain resilience in general, or for local, smaller or innovative suppliers. However, the “new” central procurement unit won’t have much impact.

Finally, there are metrics that will prove whether these predictions come to pass. If they do, we will see more single tender procurement exercises (only one bidder or a “direct award”).  We’ll see further growth of the buying aggregators. There will be a very low number of exclusions.

If I am wrong, we will see happy suppliers, more bidders per contract, fewer single supplier tenders, growth in contracts to local, smaller suppliers, social enterprises and so on. There will be fewer Private Eye-type scandal and corruption stories, and a decent number of dodgy suppliers excluded … So I hope I am just being a grumpy old pessimist!