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Sadly, my mother passed away last month, aged 93.  A broken hip, covid and pneumonia all hastened the end, but “frailty due to old age” was probably a fair enough cause on her death certificate. So we have started the process of selling her property, a bungalow, in Sherburn, an ex-mining village near Durham. I met the valuer from the estate agent last week, and he talked about the market situation and what has happened over the last 18 months.

“When lockdown started last year, we had a team meeting”, he told me. “I said to my boss, this is going to be a disaster! No-one is going to want to move during a pandemic – prices are going to crash”.

Of course we all know that he was wrong, and my new friend was very thankful for what has actually happened.  He gave us a valuation some 15% higher than it would have been 18 months ago and is confident the property will sell quickly. (Just to make potential home buyers in most of the UK envious, we are still only talking £150K for a three bedroomed detached bungalow).

The point is that I don’t remember any experts predicting a property price boom in early 2020. Of course, the UK government helped with its reductions in stamp duty and now schemes to help first time buyers. But even so, there seems to have been a surge in people assessing their lives and homes. Many have reconsidered where they want to live, and the importance of having a garden for instance has gone shooting up the priority list. The valuer said that flats and apartments were not sharing in the bonanza in quite the same way, even larger examples, and he had clients who had been locked down in such properties who were desperate to get into something with even a small patch of land of their own.

It is not just property prices of course that have surprised most of us. Timber prices have risen sharply due to a triple hit of high demand, HGV driver shortages and climate crises, reports Supply Management.

“The Timber Trade Federation (TTF) said suppliers have faced a post-pandemic “surge in demand” for timber this year, leading to the average import price of softwood increasing by 50% between January and May – a situation which is expected to continue”.

This is another example of the power of markets to surprise us. Even the experts get it wrong – in fact, it sometimes seems that they get it wrong more than the non-experts! And that applies to the markets that we deal with as corporate procurement people too. No matter how much analysis you carry out, how many numbers you crunch, the variables that aren’t predictable can screw up the best-researched forecast.

That might be human behaviour, which largely explains the housing boom, or it could be the weather in the case of crops for instance, or political upheaval, or even a pandemic. The “unknown unknowns” or black swans can cause havoc with our plans, and even smaller issues can disturb specific markets.  In my book I quote the famous Rowntree Mackintosh cocoa market disaster, which cost the firm huge amounts of money when they got their forecasts wrong for that commodity’s forward prices.  

So we have to consider all the facts if we want to avoid market-related “bad buying”, and think hard about less obvious risks. In some cases, we can use advanced techniques such as hedging to protect against future cost increases, and mechanisms such as long-term contracts to guard against shortages (but of course getting locked in to long term contracts with unfavourable conditions is a risk in itself!)

Carrying out scenario analysis, which looks at various “what ifs”, is another approach that can be valuable. Certainly, considering a range of possible events and outcomes is better than simply working on the basis of a single prediction of the future.  But this is one of the most difficult challenges procurement faces and no one can pretend that it is easy to forecast what is coming next. Let’s face it, if it was, we would all have bought timber futures, a second property and a large stock of PPE back in 2019!  

The court found this week that Michael Gove, Cabinet Office Minister, broke procurement law when a contract was awarded without competition to Public First, a research and communications agency. As the BBC reported, “The government acted unlawfully when it awarded a £560,000 contract to a firm run by former colleagues of Michael Gove and the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings, the High Court has ruled”.

This goes back to the Dominic Cummings era in the initial pandemic days of early 202. Some will feel that speed was everything at that point – but it is not like contracting for a series of market research focus groups was a matter of urgent life and death, unlike maybe PPE or ventilator procurement.

But in this case, the court found the contract award appeared to show favouritism as Public First had worked with Gove and Cummings previously, and the judge said this; “The defendant’s failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision-maker was biased.”

One founder of Public First formerly worked as an adviser to Mr Gove and for Mr Cummings, and co-wrote the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto. The other had worked alongside both men in the Department of Education. However, the judge rejected two other claims – that the direct award of the contract was “unnecessary” and that the 6-month contract length was disproportionate. So both sides can claim victory here.

Cummings thinks procurement rules are ridiculous and damaging.  Indeed, many senior people – official, special advisers and politicians – feel that they are bureaucratic and can slow down necessary actions.  There is some truth in that, and some of these people also genuinely believe that their own judgment is quite enough to make decisions on which suppliers can best carry out work.

The problem is that this approach shows at best a considerable degree of arrogance, quite a large degree in some cases. And it would be helpful if everyone understood better exactly why we have rules in public procurement. There are three good reasons.

  • The most obvious perhaps is the danger of fraud and corruption. I doubt very much whether anyone received brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash in this case. But if we don’t have processes, with openness and transparency, then the dangers of that becoming more common will rise.
  • Public procurement processes are also designed to help achieve the best possible outcome for the citizen and taxpayer. Competition is the key driver of that.  We will never know if other firms could have done as good a job as Public First for half or a tenth of the price – or a much better job for the same cost. When you don’t have competition, you can’t look at alternatives and you don’t have competitive pressure in terms of value. Even if the requirement is urgent, some competition, even if limited and rapid, is much better than none.
  • The final point is the least understood driver for proper public procurement – that it encourages healthy markets and successful economies. If firms know they will always have a chance of winning public sector contracts, they are encouraged to invest, to innovate, to provide better service. But if public markets are closed, or corrupt, or based on who you know rather than what you can do, then what is the point of trying to be better? Don’t spend a million in improving your product – spend it on getting an ex-Minister as a “consultant” to open doors, or on “research trips” to California for officials and advisers, or simply on bribes.

The last point is very evident in the countries that have the greatest corruption problems. Why would any start-up bother trying to win public sector work fairly in Venezuela, Somalia or Yemen (choosing three of the back-markers in the Transparency International Corruption Perception index)? You invest in corrupt practices to succeed.

We may think that the UK, US and other developed nations don’t have similar problems, but that would be naïve (read Bad Buying for a few examples…)  So whilst many will dismiss the Public First case as a storm in a £500K teacup, we need to hold politicians and others to account, and continue to emphasise that there are very good reasons for doing public procurement properly.

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!  

There have been interesting developments in terms of procurement of PPE in several European countries.   Last month, the Times reported that magistrates in Italy had ordered the seizure of property worth more than €70 million (£60 million) including a yacht, a Harley-Davidson motorbike, watches and several apartments from eight middlemen.  They are accused of exploiting the desperate shortages of PPE last year at the height of the pandemic.

The allegation suggests that a group of businessmen earned commissions worth €72 million on the purchase of 800 million facemasks from China. Those masks cost the Italian government some €1.2 billion. The suspects are accused of “illicit influence trafficking, receipt of stolen property and money laundering”. There is some cronyism involved here too. One of the accused is Mario Benotti, 56, a journalist and general director of two technology companies, and someone who knew Domenico Arcuri, 57, the Covid commissioner.  But Benotti says that he intervened to help his country and because Arcuri asked him to.  He acknowledges getting €12 million but says he earned it.

It has to be said that a margin or commission of €72 million sounds a lot. But on a spend of over a billion, that is “only” 6%.  Is that really exploitation?  A BBC Panorama programme this week suggested that firms such as Ayanda Capital made significantly more than that supplying the UK with PPE – a margin of 15.8% according to Tim Horlick, the boss. But in any case, if 800 million masks cost €1.2,  that is €1.5 per mask, which shows just how crazy the market got last year.

In Germany, the scandal is deeper and more shocking. Several leading politicians have been forced to resign because of the money they made personally from the pandemic shortages. Earlier this month, two members of the parliament and of Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU party resigned this week because of the scandal.

It appears that Georg Nüßlein and Nikolas Löbel both personally profited from government contracts for face masks. Löbel is alleged to have received €250,000 in payments for brokering a deal between a Chinese supplier of masks and the German cities of Heidelberg and Mannheim. Nüßlein is accused of making €660,000 through a consultancy firm for lobbying the government on behalf of a supplier. Mark Hauptmann, from the eastern state of Thuringia, is the latest to go. He is stepping down due to his alleged links concerning medical supplies and Azerbaijan. It all seems somewhat opaque, but Hauptmann has admitted that Azerbaijan and other countries paid for adverts in a newspaper he publishes.

Coming back to the UK, we also don’t know if any of our politicians took their cut for promoting PPE suppliers onto the “VIP” path, which greatly enhanced the firms’ chances of winning contracts. We still don’t know how Ayanda Capital and others were chosen to be awarded contracts, or why each got the size of contract they did.  This week, the BBC Panorama programme looked at how some very odd firms won huge contracts or acted as facilitators, such as an upmarket dogfood business! It also exposed that details of some contracts awarded last spring and summer have still not been published.

But there only four possible options in terms of the process used in the UK to select suppliers.  

1. There was an actual selection process. I don’t mean the due diligence assurance which was carried out once a firm had been chosen – I mean the process for choosing which firm would get which volume. But if there was such a process, we still don’t know what it was.

2. It was random. All the names in a hat …

3. It was literally first come, first served. The first firms that got their offers in won the work, until all the volume needed was covered.

4. It was fundamentally corrupt.  

We still don’t know which of these is the most accurate explanation, and until we do, we can’t rule out the possibility of more scandal emerging in the UK, as we have seen in these other nations. This story isn’t dead yet.

So what do we make of the UK schools lunch food box scandal? It all started with a mother posting a picture on social media of what she said were the contents of a food box that replaced her child’s usual free school lunch.

The contents weren’t very appetising, nor did they come close to being two-weeks’ worth of lunches. There was talk of this box replacing £30 worth of vouchers, another not very flattering comparison.

But there has been some confusion since then. The box was actually only a week’s worth of food, according to the supplier. Some suggested that certain pictures flying around social media didn’t include everything that was in the box. However, Chartwells, the supplier of the box and part of the giant Compass food service group did apologise and say that the box hadn’t met the required high standards, and committed to refunding the costs. The firm is clearly trying to recover from the bad publicity and is now including some additional breakfast provisions in the box, free of charge and the government has given an additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child.

It does also seem that the box was charged at £10.50, not £30, which is very different in terms of the value to the taxpayer and the recipient, and that includes food, packing and distribution. And whilst my initial thinking was that the specification must have been far too loose, or non-existent, it appears that the guidance for what should be provided is quite detailed and looks very appropriate. This is from the guidance prepared by LACA (the Lead Association for Caterers in Education), Public Health England and the Department for Education:

Food parcels should contain a balance of items from the different food groups, to reflect a healthy balanced diet for a child, as depicted by the Eatwell Guide and in line with the School Food Standards. Each parcel should provide: 

  • A variety of different types of fruit and vegetables, to provide at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables each day. These can be fresh or tinned but it’s best to source versions tinned in water or fruit juice, with no added salt or sugar.
  • Some protein foods (such as beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other non-dairy proteins), to provide a portion of food from this group every day. Meat and fish should be cooked (e.g. cooked ham or chicken slices) or tinned (e.g. tuna, salmon). Consider alternating between different protein foods to provide variety.
  • Some dairy and/or dairy alternatives (such as milk, cheese, yoghurt), to provide a portion of food from this group every day.

So let’s go back to first principles and consider whether we have seen “Bad Buying” here. The specification issue is a good place to start. Was this product specified properly? It looks like the answer might be “yes”, if we consider those guidelines. They give some leeway but are pretty clear.  

Then we can look at competition. A theme running through my book – and good procurement in general – is the power of competition as a lever for driving value and supplier performance.  Now it isn’t clear whether Chartwells won this business through a competitive process. I suspect there may be a framework with a number of providers approved to supply food boxes, as it appears that individual schools are the actual “buyers” here.  

We would hope there was some competitive process behind that – but the food boxes provided to people who were locked down last year were supplied by firms under emergency contract regulations which did not require competition, according to Spend Network and the Good Law project. Was it the same with the school boxes?

There is then the question of establishing value for money, which comes back to both the specification and the competitive process. But even if there wasn’t competition , it should have been possible to establish a “fair” price for the boxes, including the food itself, packing, handling and distribution.  I can’t say that £10.50 was a fair price – but it doesn’t feel too far out if it had covered five meals to the standard required in the guidelines.

The final and critical point comes down to supplier performance and therefore contract and supplier management. The furore all started with the pictures of substandard boxes hitting the media. Chartwell’s have mentioned supply issues; but the fact is, they should not have delivered boxes that did not meet the standards. Or, if there really was no alternative because of shortages or other supply issues, they should have explained that to their customers.

If there was a widespread and  deliberate policy of delivering less value than the specification required, then of course that would be a different issue altogether. But if this was more of a one-off, the schools involved should have been told that the product was not up to standard and that some reparation or mitigating steps would be taken quickly. That would probably have headed off the public exposure.

So this looks like a failure of supplier performance, possibly fairly isolated rather than endemic, which arguably showed some issues with contract management too. If someone on the buy-side knew of the issues, they should have done something about it, and if they didn’t know, there was something wrong with the relationship between Chartwells and the “contract manager”, whoever that was.  But I’m less sure that it was a failure in the core procurement process in this case.

One of the first disasters of the current Covid crisis in the UK was the transfer of thousands of people out of hospitals into nursing and care homes, without checks as to whether they had the virus. That put the focus again on the social care sector, and although most of the staff in homes have conducted themselves with great dedication and bravery since then, many issues remain.

I wrote an article on the topic some 5 years ago – here is an excerpt.

What market presents the biggest single challenge in public sector procurement? It has to be Social Care. A spend category worth some £20 billion a year in terms of local authority third-party spend. A category almost totally outsourced now, where funding is being cut by local authorities as their grants from central government are slashed. That is causing a reduction in supply, which in turn is driving severe problems for the NHS as record numbers of ”bed-blockers” are stuck in hospitals because of the lack of a social care-supported  alternative at home. A market where major providers have gone bust and more are teetering on the brink, with the vultures of private equity waiting in the wings.

Since then , we’ve seen more major providers going bust, and yes, the private equity firms have moved into the sector. Many homes rip off their privately paying residents, charging them far more than they charge those funded by councils who use their negotiating power to beat down prices. Meanwhile, too many staff are badly paid, staff turnover is high, and the quality of care is variable.

But these issues are not restricted to just the UK. In the Observer yesterday, Will Hutton wrote about the private equity sector in general and the care home issue in particular. He described the tragic death in a home in Spain of an 84 year old man, Zoilo Patiño, whose body was found in a locked room 24 hours after he died.

“The subsequent investigation into the management company – DomusVi, which had been contracted to operate the home – showed it had been stripped down to a “fast-food version” of healthcare by years of cuts: there was only one care worker for every 10 residents, with not even the PPE to help cope with a dead body”.

But DomusVi, Spain’s largest care home operator, is actually owned by ICG, a British private equity company. As is usually the way with private equity, the company was refinanced and is loaded up with debt – that leverage being one key way in which private equity makes its money. Stripping out costs, or “increasing efficiency” if we’re being kind, is another route often followed. For instance, Hutton claims that Care UK, backed by Bridgepoint private equity, has reduced staff numbers by a third while doubling the number of beds provided in the homes it operates.

Social care services, including care and nursing home provision, are bought by dozens of local authorities around the UK.  Many do a good job in a difficult situation, but this is a spend category that really cries out for some serious national thinking and strategy. We need to ask whether this is a suitable sector for private equity investment; whether there should be more scrutiny of the financial state of providers; what minimum standards might be imposed; and perhaps how to encourage more local, third sector and diverse suppliers into the market – as well as sorting out the funding of care, which is an issue that goes well beyond procurement.  

But the UK central government has never shown any appetite for this sort of involvement on the procurement front. This is in effect, national “Bad Buying” by omission. Whilst over the years, huge amounts of effort, skill and money have been spent putting together strategies and collaborative approaches to buying stationery (!), energy, cars or laptops, OGC, CCS, YPO and all the other collaborative bodies have shied away from social care, as have the strategists in Cabinet Office, the Department for Local Government (whatever it is called this week) or Treasury. 

Perhaps the promise of a new approach to social care funding will provoke some serious action on the procurement and market side as well. We can only hope so.

All over the world, medical staff have struggled to find enough PPE (personal protective equipment) to meet their needs and protect themselves in a time of pandemic.  The problems have extended out and affected other users too, in care homes, local government, the police even.

That has led to some buying activities and processes that were far removed from the usual formal public procurement approaches. In the UK, we have seen huge orders placed with firms that normally would not have made it beyond the first basic company checks. Money was paid up-front in some cases, something else that would never happen in normal times.

We’ve been hesitant to call this Bad Buying  given the emergency situation, although at time of writing, there is some evidence that the UK may now have over-ordered at the top of the market and paid more than perhaps we needed to. But let’s reserve judgment on that for now.

But as well as issues of competence, there have also been accusations of bias, nepotism and even fraud. Sometimes those are far-fetched; the fact that the CEO of a small firm supplying PPE once attended a Conservative Party charity dinner should not mean his firm can never be a government supplier again!

In some countries however, the issue has gone much further. Recently, the BBC reported on the arrest of the Zimbabwean Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo, as “the government came under pressure from the opposition and on social media over a scandal surrounding the procurement of coronavirus tests and equipment”.

Moyo faces charges related to a $20 million contract for PPE and other virus-related kit awarded to a firm registered in Hungary, allegedly made without going through the proper procurement processes.  The company, Drax Consult, was only registered two months before the contract award, and the firm’s representative in Zimbabwe, Delish Nguwaya, has also been arrested. Africa News reported that “local journalists exposed how Moyo allegedly chose the company to sell medical supplies to the government at inflated prices that included face masks for $28 each”.

The President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has made much of his anti-corruption drive but one of his sons was forced to issue a statement denying a link to the company after pictures emerged of Nguwaya with the president, his wife and sons at several events. Meanwhile doctors and nurses have been on strike demanding to be paid in US dollars as inflation is running at over 750% and incomes are virtually worthless in this struggling nation.

Coming back to the UK, the recent controversial government contract for market research (running focus groups) actually seems to me more dubious than most of the PPE buying activity. Giving a firm with “conflict of interest” type links to adviser Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove a contract for almost £1 million with no competition simply seems wrong. The “urgency” claim made in that case does not hold water really when a quick competition could have been run in days. But at the moment, the British people don’t seem inclined to riot in the streets or start arresting Ministers.

That’s because corruption in public life is not perceived as a big issue in the UK, unlike in Zimbabwe. That is probably a reasonable stance today; but my fear is whether the public would notice or care if matters started getting worse.  The situation can decline rapidly, and once corruption becomes embedded, it is devilishly difficult to root out. Corruption is not the only cause of Zimbabwe’s decline in recent years, but it is certainly one driver of the economic woes the country has experienced.  So, even in nice, apparently honest western democracies, we need to “stay alert”, as somebody told us recently … 

(And of course there is much more about fraud and corruption in procurement in my new book,  “Bad Buying – How Organizations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F*ck-ups”, available to pre-order now).

We’re seeing so many interesting procurement and supply chain issues during the pandemic, but focus tends to shift week by week. We’ve had the challenge of finding more ventilators, which has more or less disappeared as medics have found that such treatment isn’t advisable for many patients. Then we had global shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) – that issue certainly hasn’t disappeared, and we’re now all very interested in how a tiny pest-control business in England could win a contract for over £100 million of PPE supply.

But there’s another “spend category” that could make £100 million contracts look trivial. According to the Guardian today (June 18th), the UK’s National Health Service is considering a huge deal with the private hospital sector to use the private facilities in order to help clear the backlog  of non-Covid treatments that re urgently needed. (The NHS has effectively taken over the private hospital sector since March, but there is evidence that many of their facilities have not been heavily used up to now).

The newspaper says that “Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and NHS bosses are pushing for a £5bn-a-year deal to treat NHS patients in private hospitals and tackle a spiralling backlog amid the coronavirus pandemic”.

However, the Treasury (the UK finance ministry) has refused to sign off the deal, and has told the health department (DHSC) to “get more detailed commitments from private firms about the number of patients who will be treated every month in return for the payments”.

Well done, the Treasury!

I’d like to think that some sensible procurement professionals are involved in those discussions, although I am surprised that those procurement experts who sit in the DHSC (and there are a few…) didn’t get everything in line before the deal went to Treasury. It does also suggest that Sir Simon Stevens, who leads the NHS, and was apparently about to announce the deal, maybe doesn’t really “get” procurement. That is something we have suspected for a while and was reinforced by his choice of a Chief Commercial Officer last year who had no procurement experience whatsoever.

In any case, throwing £5 billion at some private firms without knowing exactly what they will do for the money wouldn’t be sensible and would indeed be “Bad Buying”.  It may be that the view was to set up some sort of “cost plus” or “time and materials” arrangement with the private firms, rather than having very clear deliverables, payment based on outputs and so on. But those mechanisms, where payment to suppliers is based on their costs rather than what they actually do, has some major disadvantages. Here is a short extract from my forthcoming book, “Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failure, fraud and f*ck-ups” (to be published by Penguin in October). I’m talking about construction contracts here, but the principles are absolutely the same.

“How about ‘time and materials’? In that type of agreement, the builder keeps a record of all materials they buy for the project, and the time that staff – bricklayers, carpenters, labourers and the like – spend on the work. The buyer agrees to pay those actual costs, plus some sort of margin to cover overheads and profit. Traditionally, many such agreements were based on a ‘cost plus’ model. So, you might agree to pay your builders all their costs, plus 20 per cent on top.

But you can see the incentivization problem here. Not only does the firm have no incentive to buy bricks as cheaply as possible, but they actually have an incentive to spend more on material and to make the work go on as long as possible, as they recover all those  costs back, plus 20 per cent on top of that! You could put a cap on the profit / overhead element, but that doesn’t fully address the incentivization issue on the materials or labour”.

Anyway, it is right that the government takes its time and applies all the skills it has at its disposal to get these contracts right. We’ve got blasé about large amounts of money being spent through the pandemic, but this is £5 billion we’re talking about. (“A billion here, a billion there… pretty soon you’re talking real money”, as the phrase goes).

I’d also hope that best practice contract and supplier management principles are going to be adopted here too. But that’s another whole story …

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.