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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!)

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!)

Unfortunately, fraud and corruption are common in the business world, including in many large and well-known firms, as well as in governments the world over. Literally every day you could find a new story breaking that highlights an event of that nature, whether it is thousands of pounds, dollars or euros or millions involved. 

Issues related to ‘buying’, in its widest sense, probably represent the single biggest category of fraud and corruption globally. It is not hard to see why. When we consider fraud, it is clear that criminals trying to make money need to focus on where that money is. And buying (procurement) transactions account for most of the major spend areas for businesses and government bodies.

There are alternative ways you might look to extract money illegally or improperly from corporations, such as blackmail, or banking and investment frauds. There is some non-buying-related fraud committed by employees – we’ve seen examples of senior executives putting through pay rises for themselves that weren’t properly approved, for instance. But buying from third party suppliers accounts for trillions of dollars’ worth of trade annually around the world, so it is not surprising to see a whole range of fraud and corruption cases based around those processes.

Some of the low-level frauds are almost comical. The UK NHS suffered from a senior manager who extracted money by creating false suppliers, in order to fund her own activities as a horse breeder. The need to purchase expensive horse semen was a reason quoted in court to “justify” her criminal action.

However, without wishing to sound too sanctimonious, we do need to remember that there really are no victimless crimes, even in the seemingly light-hearted examples we see.  Taxpayers lose out when it comes to fraud related to government bodies, like the horse-related one. Even if the losses are covered by insurance for firms that are the victims, then insurance premiums will rise, or insurance-firm shareholders will take a hit. Someone always loses when a fraudster gains.

Perhaps the most annoying fact is that most buying-related fraud and corruption could be stopped by organisations taking a few relatively straightforward steps. Or where it can’t be easily stopped, and we’re talking about relatively minor frauds such as misuse of company credit cards, then it could be detected quickly.

Yet too often, the right processes aren’t in place, and we are left with a CFO after the event whining that “it was a very sophisticated fraud”. In 90% of cases, it wasn’t, the fraudsters simply exploited obvious vulnerabilities, and the CFO should be fired on the spot. If that happened a bit more regularly, we would see far fewer buying related frauds, that’s for sure!