Tag Archive for: Procurement law

The UK National Health Service is one of the largest organisations in the world in terms of number of employees and its running cost. Whilst it is a single organisation in some senses, really it is made up of thousands of smaller organisations, many with considerable levels of autonomy. Even when we think about hospital trusts, each still has its own Board and is set up as an independent entity from a legal perspective, although that is slowly changing with the introduction of the regional Integrated Care System model.

So it is not surprising that over the years, there has always been tension in procurement between the urge to centralise and control more from “the top” (whatever structures might be defined in that way) against the desire for local autonomy and power.  Now no-one would argue for total centralisation (everything needed by every hospital bought from a huge central office somewhere) or total decentralisation (every doctor or hospital negotiating its own deals for pharmaceuticals!)

But getting the balance right has proved difficult. For instance, Ministers persist in claiming “the centre” did a good job in terms of pandemic PPE procurement. But the truth is that pre-pandemic central procurement strategy proved inadequate, and local action was needed to maintain supply in many hospitals. And whilst once the pandemic was underway some central activity was necessary, mandated central buying cost the UK billions in waste and super-profits for suppliers.

The new Chief Commercial Officer for the NHS, Jacqui Rock, who sits in NHS England HQ, recently launched a Central Commercial function for the NHS. A key strand of that is a technology initiative that is designed to help the manage procurement better across the system. The aim is to have a more common approach to procurement, and to start enabling better access to spend data across the whole network. That is a very sensible aim – gathering data does not mean in itself a more central approach to category strategies, and however you want to approach procurement, having good data is essential.

The mechanism for achieving this has raised some eyebrows though. Via Crown Commercial Services, all trusts, integrated care boards and other NHS entities can now use a software platform provided by Atamis, with CCS funding that to the tune of £13 million over three years (it is not clear if CCS has actually “pre-bought” licences here, which could be a risk in itself).

Atamis is a procurement and tendering platform with spend analysis functions as well as tools for managing programmes, tenders, contracts, and supplier relationships. It was chosen for use by NHS England and the central Department two years ago, although NHS Supply Chain chose software firm Jaggaer for their similar requirements.However ,this new contract with Atamis was put in place using the government’s Digital Marketplace, a set of frameworks that gives the public sector access to thousands of suppliers. And it appears that no competitive process was used to choose Atamis. They were simply awarded the contract. Now there are rules (laws) about when you can award a contract in that manner without seeking proposals from other firms also listed in the Marketplace. And I cannot see in this case how a “single tender” can be justified, when there are other firms on the framework who provide similar products and indeed supply many Trusts already.

I should say that I have no axe to grind with Atamis or their product. When I worked at Spend Matters, I had contact with the founder of Atamis and liked him and the business. But the firm was sold to a Canadian software company last year, and the NHS could represent a considerable proportion of their business.  There are also questions about what happens once the 3-year CCS funding ends, dependence (the Atamis product is built on the Salesforce platform) and “lock-in” to Atamis.

When the initiative was announced, there were a whole host of interesting comments from readers of the HSJ (Health Service Journal). This extract from one probably encapsulates much of the content.

“Why has the centre decided to create a monopoly situation, by endorsing, promoting and funding this only provider for, say contracts management? What happens to other providers with better value solutions? Should UK Tech Plc pack up and shut shop? Are these other solution providers now out of the whole NHS market? Why”? 

For me, the most fundamental question is whether it was legal and commercially appropriate to award the contract to Atamis without competition. (There are “business issues” too of course). The new central function should set a good example, and surely competition is the most fundamental principle of good procurement. But given the way the contract was let, I would not be surprised if we see challenges to that process from other suppliers who are clearly at a competitive disadvantage now, with Atamis being available “free”.  

Just before the end of 2020, the UK government issued a Green Paper on the future of public procurement regulations post Brexit. I know, it sounds dull, but before you stop reading, this matters to every taxpayer and citizen in the UK. The government spends some £300 Billion of our money every year with suppliers, so getting that right has a huge impact in terms of value for money, the economy, as well as the services provided to UK citizens.

One of the themes in the Paper is around proposed changes to the way that unhappy bidders can complain about and challenge procurement decisions.  Without going into all the gory details here, pretty much everyone involved would agree that the current process is slow, cumbersome, and often leaves the bidders feeling unhappy. It can be a real problem for the buyer, even if they haven’t done anything wrong.

So this is an area where change is needed. But has the Green Paper got it right?

One controversial proposal is to cap the damages that a bidder can receive to one and half times the bidding costs plus legal fees, except in some exceptional circumstances. Critics of that idea say it will greatly reduce the incentive for a supplier to challenge, even when there has been bad or unfair procurement.

I have very mixed feelings on this issue, and there are some tricky balances here. In my Bad Buying book, I tell the story of a disastrous Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA)  contract.

The case involved a 2016 legal challenge by Energy Solutions Ltd., the incumbent supplier for a huge contract to clean up de-commissioned UK nuclear power stations. They lost the tender … to a Babcock Fluor consortium (CFP).  But there were a number of mistakes made during the procurement process.

One related to “pass / fail thresholds”; areas where the NDA defined up-front that failure to meet certain conditions would lead to instant disqualification for the bidder. However, once bids were scored, it became clear that one supplier had failed to meet the threshold. But instead of chucking them out of the competition, the NDA decided to let them stay. Now this may all seem a little technical, but it is clearly unfair; and public procurement regulations really don’t like unfair buying processes”.

You can’t change your mind about the rules once you get into the buying process.  As the judge said, after a bidder has failed to meet a defined threshold, you can’t ask “was that threshold Requirement really that important?”, arrive at the conclusion that it was not, and then use that conclusion to justify increasing the score to a higher one than the content merited (or to justify failing to disqualify that bidder)”.

To disguise the failure of one bidding firm, the NDA team also adjusted original scores given to the bidders during the marking process. But they failed to provide any audit trail or justification for these changes, a fact that became obvious through the trial.

The judge found that the procurement did break the rules – an unsurprising outcome because it was one of the most blatantly unfair, incompetent tender evaluation processes I have ever seen.  The NDA agreed  to pay the firm (and their consortium partners Bechtel) around £100 million to settle the legal claim for their loss of profit on the contract. And an inquiry into the fiasco still hasn’t appeared, unfortunately.

Now that doesn’t really seem like a fair solution for the UK taxpayer, however bad the procurement process was. £100 million is a lot of money! But equally, firms should have the right to recover something – and probably more than 1.5 times bid costs – if they miss out on a contract because of incompetent, unfair or illegal procurement.

The failure to publish the report into the NDA affair is another common problem. In another case, Virgin Health received a settlement rumoured to be in the millions because of a botched procurement run by six clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Surrey, Surrey County Council (my home county) and NHS England. But the settlement and case details were subject to a non-disclosure agreement, so we never found out what happened, and that means other contracting authorities cannot learn from the expensive mistake.

So that was “Millions out of the health service and into the pockets of billionaire Richard Branson” – at least that is how some saw it, although Virgin defended their action.  Again, I would support the right of firms to challenge and get some reward if they are truly victims. But more thought probably needs to go into the Green Paper recommendations, and I would also make it compulsory for both parties to disclose full details of the challenge publicly. No more of these Bad Buying cover-ups please.