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It’s tomorrow!  Just over 18 months since I started writing Bad Buying – How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds, and F*ck-ups, it will hit the shops and virtual shops tomorrow.

And right on time, a new example of what might be Bad Buying with serious public consequences has hit the headlines, with pharmaceutical firm Roche telling the UK National Health Service that it can’t supply kits for Covid and other testing purposes.  

This is apparently because of a problem Roche has experienced with a new warehouse, but that is rather vague. Has the firm lost physical stock in the transfer? Has some sort of automated equipment broken down? Or is it systems issue, as it so often the case these days?  In any case, it would be surprising if Roche didn’t have a supplier of some sort to share the blame. Then there is the question of why the NHS appears to be so reliant on one supplier for such crucial items, but we’ll come back to all that another day.

Back to the book. After chapters describing failures and frauds, with dozens of case studies to illustrate the points, the final chapter provides “ten principles for good buying”.  As the book is aimed at a wide range of managers and professionals, not just procurement experts, those of you who proudly wear the MCIPS badge may find some of these a little obvious.

For instance, For everything you buy, consider how that item or spend category contributes towards strategic goals, and conduct buying appropriately.

Well of course. But how many CEOs, CFOs or indeed budget holding managers generally really understand that?  (One of my wilder thoughts is that procurement leaders might buy a copy of the book for each of their senior internal stakeholders… well, you can live in hope!)  The need for good data is another reasonably “obvious” principle.

But there are couple of principles that may be more thought-provoking, even for the procurement world. And the final one is perhaps the most important of all  – Everyone who plays a role in the buying process must be appropriately knowledgeable and skilled to get the most out of your suppliers.  

As I say, “From the technologist who specifies the new IT system to the accounts clerk who checks invoice payments, from the CEO who gives consulting contracts to her friends to the regional manager who fails to manage a difficult services supplier in his region, a large organisation will have thousands of staff involved in what I’ve called the buying process.  Indeed, every time someone in your organisation talks to someone in a supplier organisation, the conversation is potentially part of the negotiation process – and sometimes, it can be a critical part”. 

I think having a good procurement function has even given some organisations a false sense of security, with CEO’s thinking, “we must be OK, our procurement director has won awards and her team is involved in most of what we buy”. But even the best procurement function won’t save you from disaster if others have no idea what they are doing, which is why the book is aimed at that wider audience, whilst I hope still having enough serious content to appeal to the professionals!   

So, if you haven’t ordered yet, check out the links here. (In fact, one friend tells me his book arrived yesterday). There is also a podcast now (“Peter Smith’s Bad Buying podcast”) and the first two episodes, around 15-20 minutes each, are available on most podcast platforms.

There is even a Bad Buying playlist on Spotify (all my section titles in the book are also song titles …) It is a “diverse” playlist, as my daughter described it, but I’ll take that as a compliment!  You can make your own judgment on that.

UK government procurement related to the pandemic continues to be a source of some concern and confusion. More consulting contracts were published on the Contracts Finder website last week, showing the vast sums of money that are finding their way into the pockets of the partners at major consulting firms.

Deloitte were awarded two further consultancy contracts, via a call off from a Framework Agreement, worth a total of £8.7 million for:  “Buy Support for Ventilators – ICU equipment & consumables, ventilator sourcing, hard to source products” (£6.7m) and  “Support programme delivery including the identification and procurement of PPE” (£2.2m).

Two other unusual consultancy contracts were awarded to Boston Consulting Group to support the chaotic Test & Trace programme. That represented £4,992,059 for “strategic support” and £4,996,056 for “digital support” (very precise values!)

We don’t know whether there was any competitive process – for those of you who aren’t public procurement experts, you are not allowed to simply choose a “random” or favoured supplier from a “Framework” in most cases without running a competition between firms who are listed on it. Did that happen here? I have my doubts but we don’t know. There have also been comments from within the NHS suggesting that no-one quite knows what Deloitte actually did in terms of ventilator procurement. But hey, it was only £6.7 million.

But there was some good news as well. Gareth Davies, who heads up the UK National Audit Office, was interviewed by the Guardian and amongst other points, he confirmed that a report into government procurement processes during the coronavirus pandemic would be published later this year.

“We’re looking at the procurement process, a lot of public comments and concern about the transparency of some of the procurement contracts around PPE and other areas. We’re doing a detailed piece of work,” he said.

So here are a few of the questions NAO might like to ask the buyers of those consultancy services if they choose to examine that area in particular.

  • Did you understand what it was you really wanted to buy?
  • Did you consider the market in an appropriate manner, and use competition to arrive at the best fit / best value supplier to meet your needs?  
  • Do you understand the difference between the three basic reasons or needs behind buying consulting services – specialist knowledge & skills, intellectual horsepower, or execution / implementation capability?   
  • Did you think about the different commercial mechanisms and models – fixed price, time and materials, target pricing and all the variations? Are you clear you chose the most appropriate for your contract?
  • Do you understand the economics of consulting firms and therefore did you use that to negotiate confidently on daily rates (or fixed price)?
  • If you didn’t use competition, how did you arrive at a fair price for the work?
  • Did you make the deliverables, outputs or outcomes that you were expecting very clear?
  • Did you define the contract management process and the interim reporting that you wanted to see from the firm, and then follow through with professional contract management practice?

Let’s hope those responsible for spending money with these firms avoided Bad Buying and can answer these questions confidently and robustly.

Private Eye always has some interesting stories, and its coverage of the pandemic has been exemplary  – its medical writer has given some of the best advice and most balanced analysis I’ve seen anywhere.

But one article in the current edition shocked me. The magazine has been trying to find out more about the “track and trace contract”, awarded to Serco. Private Eye has had Serco in its sights since the tagging scandal some years ago, and coincidentally, four ex G4S managers are currently standing trial for fraud in connection with that same scandal.

So the magazine has been interested in how the firm is managing this new contract, which obviously is critical to how Covid is being handled in the UK. There have certainly been questions about how effective the service is proving, with reports that less than half the contacts are successfully traced, and tracing staff complaining of having nothing to do for days on end.

However, it appears that the vast majority of the actual people who are doing the work (such as it is) aren’t employed by Serco, but by sub-contractors. The firm is subcontracting operations to 29 other companies, and 85% (9,000 of a total of 10,500) of staff are apparently not employed directly by Serco. 

But when Private Eye asked which firms were acting in that role, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC – the department that “owns” this contract), refused to tell them. So under Freedom of Information rules, the magazine got hold of various documents. They showed that when the Labour Party’s Helen Hayes had asked the same question, the Department didn’t know the answer – and had to ask Serco!

Even more amazingly, it appears that Serco wouldn’t tell the Department the answer. The company’s response (that Private Eye saw) referred to a “panel of 29 subcontractors” and said that  those firms selected are either from a Crown Commercial Services framework or are “known providers”.

It is disturbing is that DHSC didn’t have this information at its fingertips when the question was first asked, and even more so if the supplier doesn’t actually have to disclose who they are using.  This is obviously an absolutely key contract, worth an awful lot of money and critical to the nation’s handling of the Covid crisis. How could you put this in place and not insist on knowing who your prime contractor was using as key sub-contractors? That sounds like a very weak contract and very poor contract management.

I know contracts have been let in haste, for understandable reasons in some cases at least. But there is no excuse for not having a grip on the key aspects of  how major suppliers are delivering the services. Understanding the supply chain must be part of that, and this failure is certainly a contender for Bad Buying – The Sequel!

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.

Yesterday, The Times published a long article looking at how PPE (personal protective equipment) has been supplied to NHS hospitals and other locations during the pandemic. Unlike most articles on this topic, it presented a rosy picture – well, rosy at least once the Army and Clipper Logistics got involved. Indeed, it could not have been more positive about those two organisations if it had been written by their PR people.

Everything was great – everyone got all the PPE they needed, the famous eBay portal worked fine (it didn’t), and the Army plus Clipper rescued the incompetent NHS procurement system. It is a little surprising to see one part of the public sector dumping so publicly on another, but perhaps that is a foretaste of spending battles to come in the UK government through the recession, battles which the NHS is likely to win over the armed forces. Perhaps the military are getting their retaliation in first?

Anyway, the aspect of the article that grabbed my attention was the revelation that the choice of Clipper was made by Neil Ashworth, “a civilian working in the British Army’s Engineering and Logistics Staff Corps and a former supply chain director at Tesco”.  It is not clear quite how and why Ashworth was involved with the Army but The Times says “It was then that the Ministry of Defence made contact with Mr Ashworth to get the ball rolling. He recommended Clipper, a fast-growing logistics group that specialises in online retail, to his MoD contacts and they told him to recruit the company”. Ashworth then called Tony Mannix, the boss of Clipper Logistics, and off they went.

I suspect Ashworth was also behind the choice of eBay for the PPE portal, based on comments made by Eb Mukhtar, the army reserve logistician who has been the public face (or at least the public name) behind this exercise up to now.

But how did Ashworth choose Clipper? Was there an analysis of alternative options? Is there any audit trail to support that decision? Did anyone ask whether Ashworth personally had any conflicts of interest here?

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that the team should have taken 3 months to run a formal tendering exercise. Neither do I think that Clipper slipped Ashworth a brown envelope stuffed with currency – his cv is impressive and he clearly knows this area.  But even in these “difficult times”, we need to be on our guard against fraud and corruption in its widest sense. And my definition of “corruption” includes corruption of the proper process.

So even when there is urgency, we need to know that public money is being protected. In this case, we need some transparency about exactly how these decisions were made, and what checks and balances were in place. The same applies to some of the rather odd looking contracts for PPE itself that are emerging.

In my new book, Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups”, (to be published by Penguin Business in October), there are some amazing stories of fraud and corruption. But the sad fact is that it can spread quickly if there are opportunities or process weakness, as it did in the US Navy during the “Fat Leonard” affair. Or as it has in South African public procurement and through their government owned businesses, to the point where the country is close to being declared a “failed state”.   

The reason it spreads like a virus is explained in my book – here is a key excerpt.

“Finally, this matters because it has wider effects beyond the organisations directly involved, as  corruption can distort normal business and even social practices and priorities. For instance, if firms know that bribing government officials is the best way to win public contracts, a firm will focus its resources and efforts into doing that effectively. They will worry less about writing a good bid, developing better products or services or performing the work well. 

The knock-on effect is that decent firms start thinking “what’s the point”?  They either move over to the dark side and start on the bribery route, or withdraw from the market, customer or even country altogether. This can lead to a downward spiral, where supplier performance gets worse and worse, and corruption becomes endemic…”

You might think that we are somehow immune from that unhappy situation in the UK and other developed countries. We are not. If firms start thinking that “who you know” is more important in terms of winning government contracts than “what you can deliver”, then we will be on a very slippery slope. And that’s why we shouldn’t absolve those involved in public procurement during these “difficult times” from the need for process, propriety and transparency.   

The pandemic crisis broke just as I was signing off the proof copy for my new book, “Bad Buying – How organizations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups“. I thought briefly about adding some pandemic-related stories, but quickly decided there wasn’t time to do it justice without delaying publication this autumn – which neither Penguin nor I wanted.

But I may well want to write something substantial about the procurement issues connected with the pandemic, because it is clear already that there are many. Not all of these by any means are “bad buying”, I would stress. I’m sure we will find that there is some great work going on, in the centre of government, in hospital trusts, in the NHS Supply Chain network, and indeed across many other organisations in local government, social care sector and so on. If I do write a book, I hope and expect that there will be as many stories of great procurement work and even heroism, as well as some failures and issues to report.

Certainly, there are enough stories emerging that will require further investigation. The mis-management of the “pandemic stockpile” of PPE (personal protective equipment) is one. Although this has had some media attention, it looks to me like a bigger failing than has really been exposed so far. How was so much of the stock allowed to get out of date, for a start? What about the “lost” items – a failure of stock control and information, or something more criminal?

PPE generally has had plenty of coverage in the media, and some of it has not been fair. Once the pandemic took hold, the global demand for PPE shot up to an extent that supply problems were inevitable. But there will be questions asked about whether the UK was agile, flexible and fast enough in its response – and no doubt other countries will ask the same thing. That will lead on to interesting debate about the whole structure and strategy for NHS procurement.

Then there is the UK’s “ventilator” challenge, in which various firms were asked to produce ventilators – with varying degrees of success. There was also the very odd decision to ask eBay to build a marketplace for PPE, which did not go well, when others such as Basware and Proband could have done it in hours based on existing capability.

That last point highlights a real frustration. There is just no transparency around how and why certain firms are being awarded contracts. Of course, we understand you can’t spend months running an “OJEU” compliant procurement process in the middle of the crisis. But it is not unreasonable for us to want to know something about how and why firms like Clipper, eBay, Palantir, Deloitte and others are being chosen, and the terms of the contracts they are working under.

If the silence continues, then we might start thinking that these decisions haven’t been taken for the right reasons. I doubt very much whether brown paper envelopes have exchanged hands, but there  are other forms of “corruption”.

I’d argue any supplier selection decision that is influenced by factors  other than objective business reasons is corrupt to some extent – that includes simple laziness (“I can’t be bothered to do the research or analysis so I’ll just give this random firm I’ve heard of the contract”), nepotism (“giving the contract to your mate”), or choosing a firm based on the fact that you rather fancy getting a job with them one day in the future.

That last idea was suggested to me as a reason for some of the tech decisions we’re seeing – “the techies in government all want to work for someone sexy like Google, Apple, or Amazon, so they find ways of working with them in their current jobs and hope to get noticed” was the suggestion.  Mind you, that doesn’t stack up with the route chosen on the tracking app…

I’ve always tended to go with the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory when things go wrong in government. But we need some visibility around all this “emergency procurement”, or we might start thinking the worst.