Tag Archive for: Negotiation

Sometimes Bad Buying stories are amusing, or we can learn from events without feeling too emotionally involved. But reports last week about the procurement and management of children’s care services brought just rage and sadness.

These are children who don’t have parents to look after them, or have been placed in care. Many have behavioural issues, or addiction problems.  So keeping them safe and providing an environment where they can learn and thrive is far from easy, and perhaps that is why public sector bodies (local councils) have over the years increasingly outsourced provision of residential facilities and care. The work goes to private sector firms, ranging from very small (individual foster parents at the extreme) to larger firms, including those funded or owned by private equity.

The Times reported problems both with the performance of some firms plus what looks like a rip-off in terms of the prices charged. The average cost per week is now £4,130 per child, and there is evidence that through the pandemic, new “get rich quick” firms have come into the scene, providing poor care and facilities but taking advantage of the lack of physical inspections by the regulators.

The Times highlighted cases reported by Ofsted (the regulator):  

  • Children were able to steal knives from one home and take them to school.
  • Staff dropped a young person off at the home of a drug dealer despite being warned by police to avoid the area; at another run by the same company a child was discovered riding a bike on a motorway hard shoulder.
  • A young person at a third home was found weaving through traffic and high on drugs. On another occasion inadequately trained staff locked themselves in a car when a resident became violent. One of the three people who set up the home was a scaffolder prosecuted for having an eight-inch knife behind the sun visor of his van.

A government review of children’s social care services is underway, and an interim report was also issued last week. The review is being chaired by Josh MacAlister, the founder of Frontline, a charity that has developed a scheme for fast-tracking bright graduates into children’s social work – similar to the Teach First scheme in the education world. I have worked with Frontline a number of times, and MacAlister is one of the most impressive people I have ever met. If anyone can address these seemingly intractable issues, it is him.

However, I did smile at his comment last week (made in a conference speech) when he appealed for large firms to moderate their prices and margins.

“I would implore those of you who are owners of private children’s homes, particularly large groups, to act with responsibility to bring down costs and reduce profit-making and to be responsive to the needs of children. It is better that plans to make this happen are started now”.

Asking firms with private equity behind them to reduce profits is like asking a spider to stop making webs or a fish to stop swimming.  Josh, it’s what they do. I think we can confidently predict that his appeal will have no effect at all.

In his speech, MacAlister also cited figures published in 2020 by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC) and Revolution Consulting, which identified a 40% rise in independent children’s home prices from 2013-19. The 20 biggest independent children’s social care providers were making combined annual profits of £265m, at a margin of 17.2%. However, the private sector argues it provides care that is as good as that provided by councils directly, at a lower cost.

Coming back to Bad Buying though, this strikes me as both market failure and a failure of procurement strategy. When we look at which services can most sensibly be outsourced, we should consider factors such as:

  • Are the services strategically critical for our organisation?
  • Is there a healthy, dynamic market out there to buy from, open to new entrants?
  • Could we move our business between suppliers or back in-house if we needed too?
  • Will there be a reasonable power balance between us and our suppliers, enabling us to exert  some negotiation leverage?

If we carried out this analysis on these services, I’d argue that this is basically not a suitable spend category to outsource. It is very sensitive, it is difficult to switch suppliers, with limited supply in some parts of the country. Once a child is being cared for, the provider has the upper hand in negotiations, as changing suppliers is difficult.  

I don’t know whether there has ever been a national procurement strategy here, or whether every council has developed its own. I suspect the current situation has just evolved, and now we have the taxpayer spending £500,000 a year per child in some cases, and not even being sure the service is up to scratch.

There is also a market study into children’s social care provision underway, led by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Maybe that – as well as the MacAlister review – will lead to a new approach to the procurement issues around children’s care. This really does need some serious thought and a national strategy. That doesn’t necessarily mean big national contracts, I would add, but it does need considering strategically, rather than dozens of individual councils trying to do their best individually.

Have you seen the price of compost this spring? I reckon it has close to doubled – three large bags from Longacres garden centre last year cost £10 (for 180 litres). Now, you will get just 100L for the same price.

Talk to a local builder, or gardener, or fencing expert, and they will tell you of shortages in markets such as timber, cement and other basic but vital materials. In another market altogether, farmers are complaining about a lack of workers to harvest crops, and restaurants of a lack of waiting and kitchen staff. Some are having to increase wages or other benefits to attract staff.

Without going into all the causes (Brexit, pandemic, lockdown-influenced career decisions), there is one very likely outcome here – inflation. There are already some warning signs, and consumer prices in the US jumped 4.2% in the 12 months through to April, up from 2.6% in March and marking the biggest increase since September 2008.  That seemed to take inflation from warning mode into “this is actually happening”.  But many economists believe the effect will be short-term, a blip rather than anything that becomes established.

But we can’t be sure of that. One test is whether price rises for materials and commodities then drive wage inflation, which can result in the sort of inflationary spiral we have seen in the past. But in any case, it seems likely that many procurement professionals will be facing a difficult time in terms of the cost of what they are buying. And for the younger members of the procurement community, this might be the first time they have faced suppliers coming in with demands for significant, maybe double-digit price increases.  

Those of us of an earlier vintage may even remember the days of the mid-70s, during which UK retail prices doubled over about 5 years. After moderating slightly, inflation picked up again and in 1980, my first full year as a graduate trainee with Mars Confectionery, inflation hit 18%.  Great for making your pay rise look impressive, less good for buyers. Suppliers often demanded massive price increases, and buyers would go to their boss and say, “good news, I’ve negotiated a great deal – the price is only going up 10%”!

If inflation does take off, it will also put pressure on all those procurement functions that aren’t really that capable, but have had an easy time over the recent years of low inflation, when claiming “savings” has been relatively easy. However, “cost avoidance” is never a totally convincing argument and will be even harder in an inflationary world when the CFO can see real bottom line costs spiralling.

There will also be a dilemma around locking in prices. If you think inflation has further to run, this might prove to be a very good time to negotiate long-term contracts and lock-in prices now with suppliers. On the other hand, if this is a “blip”, agreeing £5 a bag for compost now might look really silly if it is back to £3 by Christmas!  There is no right or wrong answer to this – but you will need to think carefully about the right approach, which in many case means balancing risk, cost and security of supply.

So this will be a real test for many procurement people and teams. If you want to avoid inflation driven “bad buying”, then here are three quick tips. There is much more that can be done of course, but these strike me as useful and sensible whatever your situation.

  • Market and supplier research is more important than ever in this situation. Suppliers will tell you all sorts of “facts” about the market, prices and so on. You need to be as well informed as them (better, if possible) so you can respond and understand what the real situation is.
  • Think carefully about your negotiation strategy – and if negotiations get tough, go back to basics. As well as research, look carefully at your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), try and improve it quickly if it is week, and look at the range of negotiation preparation and approaches that might work. You don’t have to accept price increases – but you need to know how you would respond if your hard-ball negotiation really ends up with the supplier walking away.
  • That includes looking beyond price – are there other benefits you can offer the supplier maybe in return for better pricing? Or if you end up accepting some price increase, can you agree some other wins for your organisation (payment terms, additional services, etc).

There is a lot more we could say, of course, but that’s a start at least and might stimulate some thinking. Meanwhile I’m redoubling my efforts to create home-made compost. (We do have no less than four large compost bins and two “heaps”)!