Tag Archive for: NAO

We wrote about the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Ajax armoured vehicle fiasco almost a year ago.  Now, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), made up of politicians from all parties, has urged MOD to either fix or scrap the scheme by the end of 2022.

The programme has been running for 10 years and has failed to deliver a single usable vehicle. By December 2021, the Department had paid the supplier, General Dynamics, £3.2 billion, although Ministers now say there will be no more payment until problems are resolved. Noise and vibration problems proved to be a health hazard for soldiers during testing, and there were other performance issues too. The initial design had some 1,200 “capability requirements” and both buyer and supplier under-estimated the complexity of what they were trying to build. In their report published recently, the PAC said this.

The Department’s management of the programme was flawed from the outset as the programme was over-specified and the Department (MOD) and General Dynamics did not understand the scale of the technical challenge. We have seen similar failings again and again in the Department’s management of its equipment programmes. The Ajax programme also raises serious concerns about the Department’s processes and culture for testing whether new equipment is safe to use”.

The MOD still appears to have no idea when, if ever, the vehicles will go into service and will not commit to a target date. And assuming this does not end well in term of delivering adequate vehicles, we can expect a serious legal battle – unless the MOD just caves in and pays up, of course. As the PAC report says, “because of programme delays and missed milestones, the Department estimates that it owes General Dynamics £750 million for completed work, but has not paid anything since December 2020, and the parties remain in dispute”.

The PAC comments follow a report from the National Audit Office in March 2022 which went into more detail, and there were several points in that report that I found particularly shocking. For example:

The Army’s policy of regularly rotating posts means that the programme has had a high turnover of senior personnel, with five senior responsible owners (SROs) since November 2011, and four   programme directors and six project managers since September 2013. Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) replaced the programme manager who had negotiated the reset immediately after the contract was updated in May 2019, affecting the programme’s corporate knowledge. It also replaced other senior programme personnel after the new director general was appointed in December 2019”.

That issue is largely within the control of the MOD, and the “revolving doors” staffing policy has been identified before as an issue; yet it still happens. And some senior roles were not even full-time before 2021! Then we have the Ajax Programme Office, responsible for running programme.

“The programme management office, which supports the SRO, has remained small for a programme of this scale and complexity. In 2016, six of the eight posts were vacant …  By April 2019, it had filled these vacancies to manage the contract renegotiation in 2018, but then reduced resources – at a time when the programme was missing milestones. In July 2020, the programme management office had dropped to four posts…”

What madness is this? A huge, critical and failing programme, and you reduce the programme management resources? Why? Would nobody take the jobs because they knew it was a doomed programme? Or did senior people want it to fail? Or did they think that a lack of resources might be a good excuse when the proverbial hit the fan?  Anyway, it is a shame the PAC didn’t pick up on this issue.

The NAO report identifies many other issues, from poor programme governance to specification issues, and really it is a textbook example of how not to run a major equipment procurement programme. It will certainly deserve its own chapter if and when “Bad Buying Part 2” emerges …

We are looking at increasing defence spending in the UK for obvious reasons following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That is fine; but as a taxpayer, I don’t want to see a penny more of my money going to MOD until I see a detailed and convincing plan laying out how the organisation will ensure it doesn’t waste more billions on equipment.  Ajax isn’t the first disaster of this nature; it just happens too often.

After our last article featuring criticism of the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), there has been more positive news in recent days, even if it relates to past failure. The development relates to the organisation gearing up for a legal battle with a private equity firm headed by billionaire businessman Guy Hands.

Twenty-five 25 years ago, MOD sold off houses that were used for military families. The deal was controversial at the time and has continued that way, as it became more and more obvious that it was a lousy deal for the taxpayer and indeed for many occupants of these properties. As The Guardian described it,

“In 1996, the Conservative government sold 57,400 properties in the so-called “married quarters estate” to Annington Homes, which was then bought for £1.7bn by Nomura, a Japanese investment bank that employed (Guy) Hands. He later left Nomura to found the Terra Firma private equity firm, and bought Annington for £3.2bn in 2012”.

An odd aspect of the deal was that the MOD retained responsibility for maintenance and refurbishment of the properties, whilst paying what was supposedly a discounted rent on a 200-year lease. In other government PFI-type deals of the period (including a vary large one that I was personally involved with), the buyer of the property took on full responsibility for maintenance, so at least the taxpayer was transferring a significant element of risk.  In the MOD case, the aim was to use the money raised from the sale to renovate the properties – but of course that would benefit the new owners too.  But in any case, the MOD has not done a great job of maintaining the estate in the intervening years.

The commercial naivety shown by MOD has enabled the buyers of the property to make huge profits on the back of house price inflation, with an annual return averaging over 13%, according to the National Audit Office.  That gain included Annington issuing debt last year (against the property income stream) that enabled it to pay a dividend of £794m to its parent company. Here is what I said about the deal in the Bad Buying book.

“A National Audit Office (NAO) report in January 2018 laid out failings in terms of the buying and contract management process. The Department’s own calculations suggested retaining ownership would be cheaper – but for fairly nebulous “policy benefits”, the sale went ahead anyway. It then made very cautious estimates about future house price inflation and failed to build any mechanisms into the contract to claim a share of windfall gains. Of course, house prices rose faster than MOD’s cautious model, and the rate of return for Annington and its investors has been far higher than expected.

The NAO identified other problems – for some reason, MOD retained responsibility for maintaining the property, which it hasn’t done well, and there has been little collaboration between MOD and Annington to seek further benefits. Overall, it’s an example of failure that could comfortably sit in several different chapters here, but a lack of commercial understanding and negotiation skills in MOD were certainly amongst the issues; the NAO report estimated that the Ministry of Defence would have been between £2.2 and £4.2 BILLION better off if it had retained the estate”.

But the government is now taking an interesting stance. Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin is trying to take back ownership of the properties through exercising “statutory leasehold enfranchisement rights”, a somewhat obscure legal manoeuvre. The MoD has sought to take two houses initially to test whether Annington can be forced out, whilst as you might expect, Annington claims the government has no right to do so and is behaving badly.  This may end up in court; but the firm has now offered a one-off payment of £105 to contribute to refurbishment if the MOD backs off from the legal route.

So that suggests Annington knows there is some chance it might lose in court; and arguably that is already a potential £105 million “procurement benefit” for MOD. Not bad on Andrew Forzani’s end of year savings report… But maybe there is more if the Minister has the appetite for a fight.

And just to complete the story, the chair of Annington is Baroness Liddell, an ex-Labour Party MP and now a Labour peer. It’s quite amusing hearing her now justifying the unfettered capitalism that Hands has always propounded, whilst it is the Conservative Party that tries to claw money back from the billionaire’s firm …

Our attention bandwidth has been pretty much occupied by Covid for the last two years now, with some small space left for assimilating news about trips to Barnard Castle, Downing Street parties and maybe the goats in Llandudno for a bit of light relief.

That has led to many of the usual issues that might have got more media coverage slipping through the net, including some that might have been featured here as Bad Buying cases studies. Outside pandemic-related stories, government procurement has not really hit the headlines. Yet huge sums are still being spent, including in the defence arena.

The UK Labour Party recently published a “Dossier of waste in the Ministry of Defence 2010 – 2021”, a report looking at the projects that have cost the taxpayer “at least £13B in taxpayers’ money since 2010”. Many were fundamentally procurement-related and the report is a depressing litany of write-offs, overspent procurements and contract cancellations.  Often this sort of report is light on the analysis and heavy on the politics, but I must say that this one is worth reading – it appears to be thoroughly researched, using reputable source material and non-sensationalist analysis.

However, although the report covers the period starting with the election of the Tory-led coalition in 2010, the truth is that Labour has not historically had a great record on defence spending either. It has been a challenge for every government. Indeed, programme lead times are often so drawn-out, it is virtually impossible to pin the blame accurately on anyone – politician, official, consultant or supplier side.  

For example, the Nimrod maritime patrol and attack aircraft  “waste” of £3.7 Billion quoted in the report, based on 2013 MOD accounts and arising from final contract exit in that year, relates to contracts let way back in 1996 in the dying days of the John Major Tory government. But the significant issues and problems through the development phase happened under Labour, before the coalition finally (and probably sensibly) pulled the plug in 2010.

The other issue with this new report s that it is much stronger on putting numbers to the problem than it is in terms of offering solutions. The final words from John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, are these;

This Government shows no serious intent to get a grip of these deep-seated problems. So as our first steps from day one, Labour in Government would:

  • Commission the NAO to conduct an across-the-board audit of MoD waste
  • Make the MoD the first department subject to our new Office for Value of Money’s tough regime on spending decisions.

Reforming the department will not be easy, but this report takes a crucial first step in revealing the unacceptable scale of waste in the MoD.

Well, he is certainly correct to say reform won’t be easy. But I’m not sure what an NAO “across the board audit” will achieve.  NAO can do little more really than verify the numbers. The organisation does on occasion also offer recommendations for performance  improvement, but has no resource to follow that through into implementation. And it is far from clear what the new Labour  “Office for Value for Money” is actually going to do that Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Services, NAO and Treasury can’t already. (Although I am polishing up my application to be its CEO, of course).

We’ve had (and still have) some very capable procurement leaders in MOD and people such as Bernard Gray –  who had his foibles, but possessed a first-class brain – have had a go at running the totality of Defence Acquisition. They haven’t managed to improve matters much, because the issues are clearly deeply engrained in the whole of the military ecosystem. Problems go way beyond “acquisition” or “procurement” into very high level and fundamental issues such as the three services split, uniformed/civilian tension, the pressure on military leaders to lie to secure budget, arguments over domestic industry capability, and the unhealthy proximity of the buy-side and the supply-side in UK defence.

If these tough challenges aren’t addressed – and they probably won’t be given the short-term nature of British politics – then I’m afraid “waste” and “procurement failures” will continue. That applies whichever political party is in charge and whichever Defence Minister has his or her couple of years pretending to run things.

The UK National Audit Office has published a report titled “Initial learning from the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. It draws on the various reports NAO has conducted over the last year or so, including those related to ventilator and PPE (personal protective equipment) procurement, and covers quite a range of topics including risk management, data, workforce issues and – most relevant to our interests – “transparency and public trust”.

It is timely, not least because the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor UK are currently in the midst of a court case concerning PPE procurement. Those organisations are challenging the way government awarded contracts to suppliers, with a particular focus on a handful of suppliers including Ayanda Capital and Pestfix. They also want the government to publish the full list of suppliers and (where relevant), disclose who put them forward to the “VIP list” that gave firms accelerated access to the procurement process.

Some startling information has already been disclosed in the court case. For instance, it appears that Ayanda did NOT pass the initial “due diligence” process, but somehow were still awarded contracts worth over £200 million. It is also clear that influential people were badgering the professional procurement staff to favour certain firms. 

In the case of Pestfix, evidence suggests that their executives told the government buyers that some of the payment was being used to bribe people in China to make sure supplies got through to the UK.  (Pestfix denies this but the emails seem pretty clear!) I’ve always suspected that was one reasons why the government didn’t want to deal directly with producers but involved agents and middlemen. Ministers and officials didn’t want to get their own hands dirty in what was a vicious battle to secure supply at the height of the shortages.

It is well worth keeping up with the developments in the case, but let’s revert to the NAO report and transparency. One of the main NAO learning points is the importance of transparency and clear documentation to support decision-making when measures such as competition, are not in place.

In more detail:

Transparency, including a clear audit trail to support key decisions, is a vital control to ensure accountability, especially when government is having to act at pace and other controls (for example, competitive tendering) are not in place. On the ventilator programmes, we found sufficient record of the programmes’ rationale, the key spending decisions taken, and the information departments had to base those on. However, in the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other goods and services using emergency direct awards during the pandemic, we and the Government Internal Audit Agency found that there was not always a clear audit trail to support key decisions, such as why some suppliers which had low due diligence ratings were awarded contracts”.

That due diligence issue relates back to Ayanda (and others) of course. As well as the lack of documentation, government was also slow to publish information.

“… many of the contracts awarded during the pandemic had not been published on time. Of the 1,644 contracts awarded across government up to the end of July 2020 with a contract value above £25,000, 75% were not published on Contracts Finder within the 90-day target and 55% had not had their details published by 10 November 2020. The Cabinet Office and DHSC acknowledged the backlog of contract details awaiting publication and noted that resources were now being devoted to this, having earlier been prioritised on ensuring procurements were processed so that goods and services could be made available for the pandemic response”.

We can have some sympathy here, as staff were under huge pressure, but given the large number of people (many of them expensive consultants) working on PPE procurement, it should have been possible to do a bit better than this.

In terms of transparency, I recently wrote a briefing paper with the Reform think-tank, titled Radical transparency: the future of public procurement.  The message is that the time is right for a step-change in transparency around public sector procurement. That is not just about public trust, important though that is. I believe the even bigger issue is that buyers, budget holders and commissioners in the sector have very limited visibility of what each other are doing.

That means knowledge about great ideas and amazing supplier performance is not shared – and neither is the learning when something goes wrong. Radical transparency is the answer. The recent government Green Paper on public procurement makes a few comments in this direction but really does not go far enough. As soon as you see the rules on Freedom of Information quoted as a basis for disclosure you know there is no intention of getting anything really interesting into the public domain!

If you have a few minutes and you are at all interested in public procurement, do have a look at the Reform paper. I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on the concept that transparency can be an effective antidote to public sector Bad Buying!  

The second UK National Audit Office report on pandemic procurement was issued recently. Titled “The supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic” it focuses entirely on PPE. It has received less media coverage than its predecessor, which looked at wider procurement issues, although it too had a lot of PPE-related content.

That reduced attention was probably because it lacks some of the obviously newsworthy headlines the first reported generated, around contract awards to firms such as Ayanda Capital and Pestfix, who have been in the news for a while, and discussions of potential conflict of interest at Ministerial level. But that’s a shame, because there are some very interesting findings in the more recent report too, although it still leaves a couple of key questions outstanding.

The report gives more visibility of the process as the pandemic struck in the spring. It clarifies some of the failures we saw around the existing pandemic stockpile, which was a combination of sheer incompetence and a more forgivable lack of preparedness for this type of virus.  Once it became clear that the normal NHS channels, such as Supply Chain on the procurement side and Unipart for delivery couldn’t cope, we saw Lord Deighton getting involved, bringing in people he knew (including HR support through another questionable contract).  We know Clipper won a huge distribution contract, also without any competition, although they seem to have done a pretty good job all in all.

The Parallel Supply Chain buying operation was set up in late March, with one team looking at extending UK manufacturing and another sourcing PPE globally. McKinsey supported the Department in putting together a demand model to predict how much PPE was going to be needed. The teams then went off and agreed contracts with some of the thousands of suppliers who had expressed interest – some of whom came though the “VIP route”, already exposed previously.

That takes us into our three big outstanding issue though.

  1. We still don’t understand the process by which suppliers were selected from those that put themselves forwards. Why did Ayanda Capital win a contract for £250 million? Why not £50 million? Or indeed £500 million? Why did 47 suppliers win contracts, with value ranging from less than a million to the hundreds of millions – was there an overall strategy of some sort, or was it literally the buyers accepting the first offers that were made that got through the approval process?  We know that process was flawed early on by the lack of real due diligence, but we’ll park that for the moment. But the process used for selecting suppliers and determining quantities per contract is still opaque.
  •  Why has the demand model turned out to be just so inaccurate? We are now in a situation where, as NAO says, if the recent rate of use of PPE continues, then the 32 billion items that had been ordered by the Parallel Supply Chain by 31 July could last around five years (with variations across the different types of PPE). The Parallel Supply Chain’s initial estimate of the PPE that would be required nationally anticipated an enormous increase compared with pre-pandemic use, but actual use has been lower than this (although still far higher than pre-pandemic use). What went wrong?
  • There is still some doubt over how much PPE is unusable or at least does not meet original specification. From the report – “The Department (of Health and Social Care) told us that it had identified 195 million items which were potentially unsuitable, which was equivalent to around 1% of the items it had received to date. However, it has not provided us with sufficient information to be able to verify these figures because, it told us, this would compromise its ability to resell the PPE”.   In other words, NAO can’t be sure the Department isn’t fibbing.

Coming back to the demand issue, did the model assume that the absolute peak of PPE usage in March / April would continue forever, and that there would be no reduction in cases as we went into lockdown? Was it the move away from putting patients on ventilators, as clinicians learnt more about optimal treatment pathways?  Were contingencies built on top of contingencies? I understand that the model did initially include the devolved countries (Scotland, Wales, N Ireland) who then went their own way on PPE, but that factor isn’t enough to explain the huge quantities ordered. It’s a shame the NAO report didn’t dig onto this issue a little more deeply, I feel.

By the time that the PPE team was “professionalising” through the summer and bringing in more people with real public procurement experience, I’m told that it wasn’t really a buying job any longer. The vast majority of the contracts were placed in May and June. Through the autumn, teams have been focused more on how to manage this huge over-ordering situation. That’s one of the reasons why UK ports are struggling – they are clogged up with billions of items of PPE, ordered earlier but for winter delivery.

My prediction is that soon, there will be stories of suppliers being paid off – they’ll get the majority of the contract value paid but be told not be bother supplying what is not yet delivered.  There is also a very serious problem here, as a range of new UK- based manufacturers were encouraged to move into this market. But if there is 5 years’ worth of stock (or committed orders) already, who needs more from these possibly expensive UK manufacturers?

I do have sympathy with the people involved here. Predicting demand in the peak of the pandemic must have been a difficult task, that is undeniable. But how did smart civil servants and McKinsey consultants (charging a fortune, no doubt) get it so wrong?  That demand model has cost the taxpayer billions. We have bought far too much stock, and even if it does get used eventually, it was bought at the top of the market, at prices several times the norm in many cases.

This week saw the publication of the UK National Audit Office’s second report concerning government procurement during the pandemic. The first, all about ventilators, raised some interesting issues (which I discussed on a Podcast here) but was not overly critical of the procurement process.

This new report is very different. It’s a strong but fair report, with plenty of detail and insight, and impressive given the pressure NAO must have been under itself (in terms of staff, politics, and time). In measured and factual tones, it exposes some very questionable practices, processes and actions taken this year, principally but not exclusively in terms of buying PPE (personal protective equipment).  It does not get deeply into PPE performance – there’s another report on the way shortly looking at that in more detail, apparently.

We wrote here about the VIP route for PPE, whereby firms with connections could get fast-tracked as potential suppliers, and the NAO report highlights just how beneficial that was for those firms who accessed that channel. They had a 10% chance of winning contracts, some (like the Ayanda Capital deal) for £100 million or more. Your chances if you weren’t on it were less than 1%.

I understand why there was a desire to look at more credible offers first, but the way it was done simply meant that it was literally a case of “who you knew”, not what you had done historically or were offering now.  That was clearly unfair and broke the fundamental principles of fairness and equal treatment that underpin public procurement.

Urgency was the reason why normal processes could not be followed, and I do understand that, but there were ways in which proposals could have been assessed without this blatant favouritism (and before anyone says, “so how would you have done it”, I have an answer for that – maybe a future article. Or Cabinet Office can pay me for a few days consulting and I’ll tell them. I’m a lot cheaper than McKinsey or Deloitte).

The failure to track where the 500 referrals came from in many cases (only half were noted) and apparent lack of awareness or concern about conflicts of interest also leave a bad taste here.  Indeed, a lack of documentation to support decisions is a theme running thought the NAO report.

Then, even after the NAO report, it is still not clear how the suppliers were chosen or the size of the contract determined. So there was a decent enough general process documented in the report for evaluating the suppliers and their offer in terms of credibility, but that doesn’t explain why Ayanda was given a £250 million contract while another firm might have been awarded a £1 million deal. Was it simply that they bought whatever the supplier offered once they got through the process? Was it first come, first served in some sense until the requirement was met – but that still begs the question, how did firms get to the front of the queue?

And remember, there were many credible suppliers complaining at the time that their offers of PPE weren’t even being considered. Did they fail simply because they didn’t know the right people? Did the team actually work through all the offers, or just focus on the VIP offers until they had ordered enough stock?

Given these issues, that lack of documentation around why suppliers were chosen for contracts is disappointing and unforgivable really, given the lack of competition and the size of many contracts. It broke the government’s own March 2020 Cabinet Office guidance as well, which said that buyers should keep good records of how and why suppliers were chosen.

We might speculate as to why it happened – incompetence? Arrogance? Lack of time to keep notes (with 450 people in the team, including highly paid consultants, that doesn’t feel like a good excuse)? Or corruption of some sort? The suspicion of bribery of officials remains, given this report. There must have been people who had the power to move suppliers to the front of that queue and we have no evidence of safeguards in place to ensure that wasn’t done for the wrong reasons.  

The lack of clarity on the “due diligence” process is also worrying – it wasn’t in place at all initially by the sound of it and then seems questionable, given some suppliers seem to have got through despite very dubious backgrounds. The stories in the press this week about jewellery manufacturers with “consultants “ in Spain being paid £20 million, or a young woman somehow winning a contract for almost a million pounds with no relevant experience whatsoever don’t fill us with confidence that due diligence was very effective.

Another issue was the buying of masks with the wrong specification. That appears to have been  a ”human error”, incompetence if we’re being unkind, somewhat excused by the time pressures. It has proved to be a very expensive mistake though – with the caveat that perhaps the masks can be found a useful purpose somewhere.

The report doesn’t really cover whether the prices paid were reasonable, so perhaps that will crop up in the next report. The margins being made by traders, middlemen, agents and spivs generally still haven’t been disclosed either, although the stories emerging such as the jewellery firm example seem to suggest some people made an absolute killing.

All in all, and even given the time pressures, this was not public sector procurement’s finest hour, I’m genuinely sorry to say.  In part 2, well look at some non-PPE contracts that NAO examined in the same report, and I’m afraid there is even more concerning Bad Buying to discuss there!

Construction of the HS2 high-speed railway network in England started formally last week. Some will be cheering – not me. At a time when working patterns have been changed because of Covid, perhaps for ever, and everyone is getting used to Zoom, Teams and the like, it seems crazy to be building new rail capacity so businesspeople can go to meetings. Other possibilities such as autonomous road vehicles make also make this very much a 20th century option.

HS2 is basically a job creation scheme, but an incredibly expensive one. The projected cost was initially £1-36 billion, but we’re now looking at £106 billion, incredibly.  The National Audit Office (NAO) report in January said this in summary. “In not fully and openly recognising the programme’s risks from the outset, the Department and HS2 Ltd have not adequately managed the risks to value for money”.

Does anyone really think that those “risks to value for money” will be achieved through the rest of the programme? Look at Crossrail, where the project is now three and a half years (at least) behind schedule, and the cost has risen to at least £19 Billion, some £5 billion over budget.

The business case for HS2 was always highly questionable. It relied on ascribing a value to the extra 20 minutes or so the passengers would have because of their somewhat faster journey from London to Birmingham. It assumed that the journey time was “wasted” from a benefit point of view, which is clearly not true (have they never heard of smartphones or laptops?), and also assumed that passengers wouldn’t use the extra 20 minutes by staying in bed a little longer!

This is an example of a vanity-driven Bad Buying project, and there are others described in my new book, Bad Buying – How organizations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups,  published by Penguin on October 8th (you can pre-order it here). Politicians love to spend money in a way that they feel will provide them a “legacy”, assuming that posterity will thank them for their initiative and forget the huge waste of taxpayers’ money once a few years go by.

Another problem with huge programmes of this nature is the lack of anyone in a controlling position who has a vested interest in really managing costs. The engineering and construction firms are probably smart enough to avoid signing up to onerous fixed price deals, so they would like the construction to go on for ever. Likewise the well paid HS2 staff, including thousands of “contingent labour” workers (including procurement people) no doubt earning a very good day rate. The longer the better for them.

We might assume that the politicians have an interest in managing costs, but the problem here is both the relative timescales and the asymmetry of information. Even the Transport Minister has no idea whether they are being spun a line by the experts who are closely involved in the programme. And most Ministers last less than 3 years in post so they know that they probably won’t be around themselves to carry the can – and later Ministers can blame their predecessor! So who really represents the interests of the poor old taxpayer in this? NAO perhaps, but their reports, although excellent, tend to be put together well after the event.

The only positive I can see is that if I do write a sequel to Bad Buying, I’m sure HS2 will give me some good stories. But I’m not sure that offsets the likely spending of £5,000 for EVERY family in the UK, to build what may well become a major white elephant.