Tag Archive for: Government

It’s usually  a sign of desperation in terms of the public finances (in the UK anyway)  when politicians suddenly start talking about “efficiency savings”. It’s even more serious when they start building them into future forecasts of public expenditure before identifying where the “savings” might actually come from.  

There is nothing wrong with looking for savings from procurement or internal efficiencies, an any good manager should be doing so continuously. But if you really wanted to run such a proper programme across the UK government, you would need to plan and think carefully about how you structure and resource that, which areas you will focus on and so on.  I was involved in the Gershon efficiency programme way back in the mid-noughties and whilst it probably did not deliver everything it wanted to, it was a serious attempt to address difficult issues such as cross-departmental collaboration and a structured category management approach to central government buying.

Last week, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a new efficiency drive. “The drive will be spearheaded by a new Chancellor-chaired “Efficiency and Value for Money Committee” that will cut £5.5 billion worth of waste – with savings used to fund vital public services”.

Set up a committee – I’ve always found that’s a great way of making savings! But when you look closely at the announcement, it seems to apply mainly to the NHS and the arm’s length bodies (“Quangos”).  They “will be expected to save at least £800m from their budgets”.  The Arm’s Length Body Review will see savings supposedly come from “better use of property, reduced reliance on consultants, increased digitisation and greater use of shared services, as well as the use of benchmarking to drive efficiencies”.

What has the last government been doing all these years to leave these savings on the table?!  It’s a good job the Conservatives are now in power to sort it out!  Hang on a minute – they’ve been in office for over a decade now. It’s taken quite a while to realise that issues such as “reliance on consultants” are costing the taxpayer a fortune.  

Meanwhile, the “£4.75 billion worth of savings agreed with the Department of Health and Social Care will come into effect financial year 2022/23.”  So together that gives us £5.5 billion in “savings”, which more than covers the £5.5 billion target previously mentioned. So are central departments not covered by this? It’s not clear.  We may come back to where exactly these huge health savings are going to come from.

The other element of the announcement is this. “The Treasury will also launch a new Innovation Challenge to crowdsource ideas from civil servants on how government can reduce waste and improve public services, with winners selected this Summer and best ideas becoming Government policy…. A 2015 Innovation Challenge received 22,000 responses with 16 measures implemented”.

I predict there will be many ideas from civil servants, and the most common will be “stop Ministers coming up with stupid f***ng policy ideas that will never work and cost a fortune”.

Consider great historical examples such as NPfIT in the NHS, ID Cards, privatisation of probation, FireControl, Universal Credit, most PFI programmes, the aircraft carrier programmes … etc.  Maybe it would also help if we didn’t give PPE contracts to friends of friends and then waste billions because of over-buying and not checking the specification.

But back to the new “efficiency programme”. We’ll know quickly if it really means anything when we see if and how it is to be resourced, and how often this committee is going to meet. The methodology of measuring “savings” is also key. I’m sure the DHSC will find a way of showing Treasury that it made the “savings”, yet somehow it managed to overspend its budget at the same time… and yes, I am deeply cynical about all this!

In early December the UK Government Cabinet Office published its response to its consultation on proposed new UK public procurement regulations. I was hoping to see what the real experts (Arrowsmith, Telles, Sanchez-Graells etc) thought of the response before going into print, but let’s give it a shot anyway! 

These new regulations in the UK will supersede the previous EU Regs, and will define the way that over £300 billion a year is spent by public sector organisations. The rules may seem unimportant to the average citizen, but getting value for money from this huge spend (£6,000 per year for every adult in the country), and avoiding fraud and corruption are fundamental issues – they have a direct impact on how much tax we all pay, for a start!

The first point to make about the Government’s response is that those who participated in the consultation exercise weren’t wasting their time.  We’ve seen past consultations in different areas of policy where the government seemed to be just ticking the box (“we’ve consulted”) and showed no real desire to change initial proposals or listen to advice. But in this case, credit to the Cabinet Office procurement policy folk – and their political masters – for taking on board many of the most significant points raised by respondents.

That includes for instance retaining the “light touch” regime (with some improvements) for certain procurements, an approach that was seen as helpful by many local authorities and health bodies. Whilst the specific Utilities Regulations will still go, that sector will be able to continue with some of the special “flexibilities” buyers there find useful – the original proposal would have abolished those.

The central governance of the new regime has been watered down after many who commented (including me) expressed concern about an over-powerful new Cabinet Office unit sitting in judgement over buyers, with the ability to intervene or effectively even take over a procurement function that stepped out of line. The new proposals pull back from that, looking instead to build on current powers, although there will be “a duty for contracting authorities to implement recommendations to address non-compliance of procurement law, where breaches have been identified”, which seems reasonable.

The proposal to cap damages where buyers break the rules and get sued by bidders has been dropped – to me, that seemed to be largely addressing a non-existent problem in any case. But the government is still looking at “other measures aimed at resolving disputes faster which would reduce the need to pay compensatory damages to losing bidders after contracts have been signed”.

Transparency is a key issue. The proposals certainly should help in some areas – for instance, by increasing disclosure when contracts are extended or varied.  Following consultation, “we intend to ensure the transparency requirements are proportionate to the procurements being carried out and are simple to implement”. That is hard to argue with, and of course focusing on the most significant contracts is understandable.

But I do still worry that the barriers provided by exemptions from Freedom of Information rules could make it difficult for spend to be properly scrutinized. The reluctance of politicians recently to tell us what went on across a whole range of pandemic-related contracts shows why this is so important. We can’t let UK public procurement slip into the morass of cronyism and corruption that many countries around the world experience, and the last two years have shown we are not immune to that threat.  

Perhaps the biggest question about the proposed changes is around the basic strategy of freeing up contracting authorities from highly structured processes, Instead, buyers will have more scope to design their own processes, within certain broad parameters around fairness and (to some extent) transparency. But that might increase the burden on suppliers if they have to cope with many different approaches and processes when they want to bid for government work, rather than just a handful of set procedures.

However, I don’t think in practice that politicians would have accepted a UK regime that was largely unchanged. “We need to show that we can do things better than the EU” would have been the (not unreasonable) objective behind the new rules. So that additional freedom was always likely to be part of the package – whether it “reduces bureaucracy” or increases it (from the supplier perspective) remains to be seen.

Similarly, we will have to see whether that freedom leads to more commercial approaches to procurement, better use of negotiation and ultimately better value for the taxpayer. Or will it mean  more corrupt procurement, with the flexibility used to give contracts to friends, relatives, cronies, attractive blond American IT experts and random pub landlords? 

That uncertainty means we won’t know for several years whether the new regulations are a success or not. And that leads to a final question – how will we know?  What are the critical success measures, the results, outputs or outcomes that would lead us to say, “yes, the new procurement regulations really have made a difference”?   I’ll leave that question for another day.

Returning to the Greensill supply chain finance (SCF) scandal, the excellent BBC Panorama programme earlier this month dug further into the affair, including the role of ex-Prime Minster David Cameron.  It is well worth watching and gives a clear explanation of how the Greensill business model “worked” and eventually unwound. Panorama exposed how deeply involved Cameron was with the Greensill business, and says that he allegedly made $10 million for two and a half years of part-time work with the firm.

Cameron told Panorama he knew nothing about the dodgier aspects of Greensill, but if he didn’t know quite how flaky Greensill’s business model was, then he was naïve, as well as greedy. If he did know, and Panorama suggests he was aware of some of the key issues, then maybe he will end up in court alongside others who I’m pretty convinced will end up there. 

At the core of Greensill’s model was the ability to attract finance by claiming that his SCF loans were low risk because they were based on issued invoices that would be paid by the customer. Some of Greensill’s finance came from the bank in Germany that the firm owned – Panorama suggested that up to £2.5 billion might be lost from that source.  Greensill also raised vast amounts of cash via bonds issued through Credit Suisse – some $10 billion. Again that was presented to investors as very low risk, as loans were backed by invoices, so the cost of raising that money was low for Greensill.

It now transpires that some of the “invoices” that money was advanced against were not invoices at all in the way that any procurement or finance person (or frankly any sensible person) would recognise.  Rather, they were just vague expectations or hypothetical transactions concernign future income from customers of the firms to whom Greensill was lending money.  The Gupta steel firms in particular raised huge amounts of money from Greensill on the basis that they would at some point sell “some stuff” to “some companies”! The BBC suggests that other invoices were simply fake.

So this was totally unsecured lending to firms such as those in the Gupta group, rather than lending backed by real transactions and future income flows.  And guess what – much of the money Greensill lent is now not being repaid.

Lex Greensill told Panorama that he “did not mislead any investor, depositor or customer”. He said the predicted sales were “future receivables which are commonplace in the financial services market”. The loans were based on future trade that was likely to occur from current customers.  In fact, even this wasn’t true, as firms who were listed as “current customers” simply weren’t, according to Panorama.  Greensill then explained they didn’t even have to be current customers. He made all the right disclosures to Credit Suisse, he says ….

But back to the statement that this approach – lending money on predicted future invoices – is commonplace. It is not. Supply Chain Finance technology is covered well by Spend Matters and whilst it wasn’t my personal core area of interest, I met enough players in that market over my years editing Spend Matters to know that it was almost always based on actual invoices.

There were firms that were looking to base financing on invoices that had been received by the buyer but not yet approved, or invoices that would be issued in the future but were for agreed work (e.g. stage payments), with the buyer irrevocably committing to pay.  But even those approaches were seen as somewhat risky and daring because of the lending risk (what if the buyer didn’t approve the invoice?)

Nobody I ever spoke to was talking about payment against some totally imaginary future invoices, whether identified with current customers or not. So Greensill is talking nonsense when he suggests that lending against future receivables is some sort of common practice. But then he always talked a lot of nonsense.

On a related note, the Boardman “Review into the development and use of supply chain finance (and associated schemes) in governmentcame out last month.  It looks into how Greensill worked within government and the access he had to senior civil servants and ministers. I’m still getting to grips with that, so I may be back to this issue again.

It is a while since I wrote about the PPE (personal protective equipment) process in the UK government and health sector, but the stories continue to emerge and some are troubling to say the least.

The case of the contract with Ayanda Capital to supply face masks is one that continues to develop. Andrew Mills was the CEO of Virtualstock (a supply chain software firm) until 2018 but has acted as an unpaid government adviser since then. He secured production capacity for masks from a Chinese factory, but asked Ayanda Capital Ltd (an investment firm, registered in Mauritius but based in London) to “front” the proposal and then contract with government, as Ayanda had more experience in handling foreign payments.

The contract is worth at least £150 million, but now product has been delivered, fifty million masks can’t be used in hospitals because of safety fears. The masks use ear-loop fastenings rather than head loops, which means they may not fit tightly enough to be effective.

So did Ayanda fail to meet the specification? In normal cases, a product that does not meet the specification simply means that the supplier does not get paid.  No, says the firm, it’s not our fault.

“The masks supplied went through a rigorous technical assurance programme and met all the requirements of the technical specifications which were made available online through the government’s portal,” they say. If true, that suggests the technical specification given to suppliers was simply incorrect.

But why is the government not challenging this? We can only draw two possible conclusions.

  1. Ayanda is correct. The specification was wrong and the error was the fault of the government procurement team.
  2. The government wants Ayanda to have the money even if they have failed in some way – for whatever reason, maybe to avoid more embarrassing debate – and simply wants to ignore the apparent specification problem.

The Good Law Project is challenging the government through the courts on this and some other questionable contracts that have been let during the crisis.  Jo Maugham QC is leading the challenge, and on Twitter he has suggested, based on analysis of market prices, that Ayanda may have made over £50 million profit on this deal.  That leads to another question. What measures did the procurement team take to ensure that the supplier was not going to make “excess profit” out of this deal?

Was there an open book provision, so the cost price from the factory was visible? Clawback provisions? Maybe even a cost-plus pricing formula? Or was the Ayanda price simply accepted without analysis, benchmarking, negotiation or questioning?

In the heat of the PPE crisis, we might forgive a certain amount of unusual procurement in terms of the selection of suppliers and perhaps less focus on track record and capability than we see in normal times, in order to simply get access to product.

But if the procurement team really did fail on the specification, that is very disappointing. “Getting the specification right” is literally Chapter 1 in my new book, (out in October) because it is so fundamental. Equally, a failure to negotiate or construct a robust commercial arrangement in order to allow a supplier to make a reasonable but not excessive profit is really pretty basic procurement work.

If failure on these two fronts has led to the taxpayer losing millions, and undeserving businesspeople making millions, then this truly will be a contender for the 2020 Bad Buying Trophy.

A ”Ministerial Direction” sounds like a very dry and boring aspect of civil service bureaucracy, but that is far from the case. It happens when a government Minister in the UK (an elected politician) insists that their most senior civil servant (the “Perm Sec”) takes an action that the civil servant believes is against the principles of good value for the taxpayer.

Or, as the Institute of Government puts it, “Ministerial directions are formal instructions from ministers telling their department to proceed with a spending proposal, despite an objection from their permanent secretary”.

They are unusual; through the nineties and noughties, a couple a year was the average. There were more around the banking crisis, and we have seen a not unexpected flood of directions in recent months around Covid-related issues. But often, they are not really reflecting a genuine disagreement between the Minister and the mandarin. It is more that the spending can’t definitely be seen as good value, so the permanent secretary has to seek the direction to protect themselves, even if they are wholeheartedly in agreement with the Minister in terms of the actual action.

Much of the Covid spending in areas such as the furlough scheme for instance may prove to be poor value ultimately, and cannot be clearly justified upfront; but I suspect civil servants were right behind the Chancellor and fully supportive of the actions he took.

However, very occasionally you get a direction which reflects a real disagreement, where the Perm Sec is basically saying “I think this is a waste of money and I am doing it because you are forcing me to, you idiot”. Put in nicer words of course. And one such case came to light this week, relating to the UK investment in proposed purchase of OneWeb, a (bankrupt) start-up company whose ambition is to provide global broadband. $500m in equity investment is being considered to co-finance the purchase of OneWeb from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Perm Sec at the Business Department, Sam Beckett, says in her letter to Alok Sharma, the Minister, that while in one scenario “we could get a 20 per cent return, the central case is marginal and there are significant downside risks, including that venture capital investments of this sort can fail, with the consequence that all the value of the equity can be lost”.

There is more in terms of the issues, and Beckett does recognise that this could prove to be an opportunity for the UK, but she feels this would be an unusual investment for a public body, and you have to wonder why it would be attractive for the UK government if it is not to other more experienced investors!

Is this Bad Buying though? Well, you could argue that we won’t know that until we see if OneWeb succeeds or fails. But actually, good decision making is NOT really related to outcomes.  If I make the decision to stand out on the golf course in a thunderstorm with my umbrella up, and I stay dry and don’t get hit by lightning, that does not make it a good decision. It was a bad decision, because based on the facts available at the time it was made, it was the wrong choice (assuming that staying alive is high on my priority list).  You might argue it was successful in terms of outcome, but it wasn’t right at the key moment.

Sharma’s reply says that “I have been informed that even with substantial haircuts to OneWeb’s base case financial projections the investment would have a positive return”. But other experts have suggested that the chances of success here are pretty low. One attraction of the investment is to provide an alternative space system for GPS services to the EU’s Galileo system (the UK is leaving the EU of course). But some believe the OneWeb satellites are not fit for that purpose (follow the link for more techie debate!)

The Guardian talked to Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, who said “the fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites.” (This from Forbes is a pretty balanced view of the technology issues if you want to get into more detailed pros and cons).

That Bowen comment sounds like “getting the specification wrong”, which is literally chapter one in my new book, Bad Buying, out in October.  A good spec as any procurement professional knows is an essential starting point to a successful contract.  So, whilst I don’t understand all the aspects of this, it looks like this is the wrong decision based on risk and opportunity.

It may of course turn out to be a successful decision in terms of outcome – but that still won’t mean it was the right decision, if the facts at this stage suggest a high probability that the UK taxpayer will lose out. And on that basis, we nominate it indeed as an example of Bad Buying.

Psssttt! Wanna buy a cheap consultant? Top quality, only £20 a day. Or, tell you what, you can have some for a tenner if you like. Yeah. Just £10 a day!

The UK’s central government procurement arm, Crown Commercial Services, has various frameworks in place that enable users to select and engage from a list of management consulting firms.  So how was it that the rate card for the different levels of consultants on certain “lots” includes the bargain rate of £10 a day for a junior consultant from one of the world’s very biggest and most highly regarded strategic consulting firms? Or how about the same rate for a junior and only £30 a day for a senior consultant from one of the big four audit / consulting giants?

What’s going on here? Well, it is almost certainly related to how the firms “gamed” the evaluation process in order to win a place on the framework list of approved suppliers. CCS has had some unhappy experiences with consulting frameworks, including having to pull an entire exercise in 2017 when it became clear that the big firms weren’t going to make it onto the list!

Generally, when price is evaluated in the tender (along with quality and other service factors), the buyer asks for day rates for the different levels of consultant – perhaps junior, senior, manager, director, partner. Then there is some sort of adding up process, maybe weighted to reflect different likely use of the different levels, to arrive at an overall cost.

So let’s suppose your rates are something like this,

Junior                    £1000

Senior                   £1200

Manager              £1400

Director                £1800

Partner                 £2400

Let’s also suppose that the buyer is weighting each at 20% to arrive at a composite average rate – in our case here, that would be £1560 per day.

I might worry as a bidding firm that such a number could be on the high side. So how can I adjust that, without actually reducing my profit margins (and hitting my £600K a year partner’s salary)? Well, we are unlikely to be putting many Partner level people into these projects, particularly for government work. So we can take a bit of a hit on that rate. And as for juniors – well, let’s just work on the basis that when the Department for Internal Affairs comes looking for a proposal, we’ll say we haven’t got any available. Let’s face it, clients don’t really want the graduate trainees who can barely run a spreadsheet anyway.

But we might want to up the middle levels a bit to recover the lost margin on Partners, as that is where we really will be supplying people. So how about this?

Junior                    £0 (free!!)

Senior                   £1300

Manager              £1500

Director                £1800

Partner                 £2000

Our average rate now is £1320. That’s a 15% improvement in overall pricing and a lot more marks when it comes to the evaluation. And in reality, the likely revenues if anything might be a touch higher.

So why did CCS allow this to happen in this particular case? Well, it might have been difficult to stop – you can reject “unfeasibly low” bids under EU procurement regulations but the overall prices aren’t unfeasible. And of course CCS desperately wanted these firms on their list, so users will access the contract and CCS will make their margin, which funds the organisation.

Maybe all this doesn’t really matter, but it is worth remembering the lengths and the creativity that the partners in these firms will go to in order to protect their £500,000 – £1 million+ annual salaries. But do think carefully about your evaluation process if you want to avoid this sort of game-playing.

Finally, if you want to hear more interesting stories about buying professional services, positive and negative, I’m a keynote speaker at a (free) virtual conference on that topic organised by Matrix MM on Tuesday next week, 21st July. More details here!