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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!