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Conflicts of interest as a ethical topic has always been relevant in procurement, both public and private sector. Here is a quick quote from my book, Bad Buying.

At a local level, I’ve worked with organisations whose top management didn’t even want to put in place a clear “conflict of interest” policy. That would mean staff having to disclose any interest they (or close family / friends) have in another business that might be a supplier or a customer of the organisation for which they work. But there’s usually a reason for that hesitancy.  Where you see organisations that won’t support anti-corruption activities, then you might draw obvious conclusions”.

Conflict of interest is a key issue within the fight against procurement-related fraud and corruption. We want buyers and everyone involved in the process to select suppliers, negotiate and manage contracts without being biased because they have an external interest that affects their behaviour.

We’ve seen these issues come up a number of times over the last 18 months through the pandemic with spend on products such as PPE (personal protective equipment) being in the public eye. So some recipients of huge contracts for PPE have had links with politicians and other powerful people, which has led to suggestions that decisions were impacted by these conflicts of interest.

The standard approach when developing procurement policies and practices is to ask those involved in the process to declare any potential conflicts upfront. Somebody can then decide if that is significant, and if so, how to handle that. At the extreme, I’d suggest it might eliminate a potential supplier from consideration completely. That doesn’t happen often, but appointing a small consulting firm to do a procurement review when that firm is run by the Procurement Director’s wife might not be a good idea.

But more frequently, it is a case of making sure the person with the conflict does not play a central role in key stages of the process, such as selecting the supplier or negotiating the contract. Suppose a senior executive who has an interest in the service being purchased discloses that their sister is a senior manager in one of the bidding firms. I would not expect that firm to be disqualified, but the executive should not be involved in the key aspects of the procurement. There are potential issues of confidentiality as well as bias of course – so if the exec is going to have access to confidential information, then they need to understand that any breach will lead to disciplinary action! Or you may simply choose to keep such information away from them.

There are questions however about how far we can and should go. That came to mind with the revelations around Mathew Hancock, the UK Health Minister who resigned because he broke covid rules with his ”friend”. But another part of that report claimed that his friend’s brother runs a firm that has won NHS contracts.

Is that a worry?  If your friend’s brother is bidding for a contract with your organisation, do you need to declare that as a potential conflict of interest?  That probably depends on just how close the “friend” is. If they are in effect a partner (legally or secretly) then it probably should be declared. But frankly, I would very rarely have known what any of my friends’ siblings did for a living!  So we have to be reasonable in terms of how meaningful the risk is.

A similar argument applies to shareholdings. Most of us hold shares indirectly through pension schemes or investment funds and we may well have direct holdings too. We can’t be expected to know exactly where “our” money is invested in every case. But what about if I have just a couple of hundred pounds worth of shares held directly in a potential supplier? I’d suggest that it is sensible to declare that, but I would not necessary exclude someone from the process for that level of “conflict”. However, if it were several thousand pounds worth, or if we were considering share options in a start-up that could prove valuable one day, the position might be different.

These are tricky issues.  The key is to impress on everyone that if they are in any doubt, it is better to declare the potential conflict and let others decide how serious it is. That is much better than having to plead later on that “I didn’t realise it mattered”. 

And if you want to hear more about this and related topics, I’m speaking as part of a CIPS (Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) webinar on July 13th, 2021, at 12.30 pm. It is all about ethics and is titled “50 shades of Procurement – an Ethical Perspective”.  It should be interesting – and it is open to CIPS members AND non-members, so anyone can book here.

(The picture shows my cycling friends enjoying an outing with me last year – no contracts were awarded!)

(I asked CCS if they wanted to comment on this article and they said no).

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) is the central buying organisation for the UK government – particularly used by central departments, although any other public body (councils, hospitals, universities etc.) can use their contracts and frameworks too. It does some good work and employs a lot of hard working, smart procurement people. But sometimes it gets it badly wrong, as it has with the new management consulting procurement process.

Bids from potential suppliers are now in for the latest iteration of their Management Consultancy Framework, MCF3 as it is known. It is split into 10 Lots, ranging through general “business”, functional areas including procurement, and high-level topics such as “strategy”. Suppliers can bid for all or any of the Lots.

I have looked at the way the Lots and evaluation process are structured, and the way it is designed looks at first sight very strange. However, if you believe that it is aimed at meeting four key objectives, then it is quite sensible. Those objectives do not, unfortunately, include “delivering value for the taxpayer”.  

Instead, they appear to be:

  1. Make sure the big firms (McKinsey,  Deloitte, BCG, PWC etc) win a place on the more “strategic” Lots 2, 3 and 4 for strategy, finance and transformation work.  Why is it essential that these firms are successful?  Simply because Ministers and senior civil servants want to use those firms, and CCS itself relies on the commission it gets from sales through its frameworks to fund itself. If they weren’t available via CCS, budget holders would find another way to engage those firms and CCS would lose revenue.  
  2. Make sure those firms get onto the framework without having to offer particularly competitive prices, so they will be happy to put senior people onto government work without worrying about the rates.  
  3. Ensure that there are a large number of “SMEs” (smaller firms) who win a place on the MCF. Ministers can then supposedly support the small business agenda and announce that “over 50% of the firms selected are small firms”.
  4. But also make sure there is no need for any government department to actually use any of these small, lower cost firms.

So if these are indeed the objectives, how has CCS given itself the best chance of achieving this?

A Dodgy Price Evaluation

The way price is evaluated is a major factor here. So Lot 1 is general “business”, and up to 75 suppliers will be appointed to this Lot. Here, when the bidders “price” is evaluated, it is weighted at 90% of the total marks available. But the other 10% is just a tick box to say you will deliver the services (which is odd in itself – why would I be bidding otherwise?)

Price is calculated as the median of the prices offered for the 6 grades, from junior consultant up to Partner level. So basically, this is purely a price selection. The cheapest firms, which will be small firms that few of us will have ever heard of, will win a place. And because no-one has heard of them, and (in some cases at least) they are not very good, which is why they are cheap, they won’t be used much. But CCS and Ministers will have lots of SMEs on the list to boast about.

So then how does CCS make sure that the big firms succeed? For Lots 2, 3 and 4, price is only weighted at 10% of the total marks.  The rest come from essay-type questions in which the firms have to show extensive capability. There is plenty of scope for some flexibility in the marking too, and given the low weighting, price barely matters.   I would bet my mortgage that the “usual suspects” will all win places here.  

But just to make sure that those firms don’t have to worry about not making enough money, the price on which marking is based is not calculated as the average (the mean) of the 6 grades, which would seem to be a logical approach, or a weighted average rate based on likely frequency of use of each grade. Instead, it is the average of just two grades, the two “middle” ones (senior consultant and principal consultant / associate director). Actually, that would seem to be the same as the “median” price which is how Lot 1 is defined – it is not clear why different terminology is used.

So that means you don’t have to worry much about the price you put in for Partner. There is one more constraint in that for each grade, the price must be between 10 and 50% lower than the grade above.  But that isn’t too much of a hardship – for instance, you could put in this bid:

FIRM A

Partner                               £6000 a day

Director                              £3000

Principal consultant        £1500

Senior consultant             £1300

Consultant                          £1150

Analyst                                £1000

Your score would be based on the average of £1300 and £1500, so that is £1400, which is probably not too out of line with many bids. But once you win a contract, you can legitimately put your Partners in at £6K a day!

This is an “Illegal” Evaluation Methodology

There is also a technical/legal issue here, in that your evaluation score could be the same as another bid that puts in much lower rates for the top two grades (or indeed the lowest two), as long as you offer the same rates for those two in the middle. That seems to break fundamental rules of public procurement, that you have to make “value” your selection factor and you have to show you have a “fair” process.  So Firm B (below) scores fewer points in the evaluation than firm A, even though their pricing is much better value overall!

FIRM B

Partner                               £2000 a day

Director                              £1750

Principal consultant        £1500

Senior consultant             £1320

Consultant                          £900

Analyst                                £600

I can think of no reason why the average of the 6 grades has not been used – other than to help the big firms charge a fortune for their Partners. Unless I’ve missed something here, it feels like either a real error or there is something odd going on. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but you do sometimes wonder if there is some sort of plan for certain firms to suck as much money as possible out of the public purse at the moment?   

This is the Argos Catalogue, not a “Framework”

Finally, there is another somewhat technical issue, in that users of the framework who want to choose a supplier for an individual project should (to be legally compliant) in most cases invite all the suppliers listed in the Lot to bid. But if you have to ask 75 firms (Lot 1) or even 30 firms (Lots 2 to 6 ) to put in proposals, that is quite a workload to manage and evaluate.

So I suspect CCS assumes that many users will just choose their favourites from the list, even if this technically breaks the regulations. We’re going back to the old days when I worked in government in the 1990s and that was how frameworks were generally used. Budget holders just picked their favourites from a preferred supplier list. The approach didn’t deliver value for money for the taxpayer then, and it doesn’t now.

But again, having such extensive lists of suppliers ensures that there is plenty of choice on the framework for users, so CCS maximises its own revenues. I’m afraid that looks like a major driver here, along with keeping Ministers, budget holders and the big firms happy.

What Does the Lord Think?

I do also wonder what Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office Minister, thinks of this, or if he is even aware of what is going on. It was Agnew who wrote to senior civil  servants last September telling them to “rein in spending on consultants” and that Whitehall was being “infantilised” by their over-use. 

But when you see headlines in a year or two about “firms charging £6K a day for consultants”, you know why. Basically, the government, through Crown Commercial Service, has designed its procurement process to allow that. This is all very disappointing, given the undoubted talent of the people in CCS involved in this exercise.

PS  Buying consulting services based on a “day rate” model is almost always the wrong way to do it, anyway. More on that another day.

PPS There is no mention of “social value” in the tender either.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psssttt! Wanna buy a cheap consultant? Top quality, only £20 a day. Or, tell you what, you can have some for a tenner if you like. Yeah. Just £10 a day!

The UK’s central government procurement arm, Crown Commercial Services, has various frameworks in place that enable users to select and engage from a list of management consulting firms.  So how was it that the rate card for the different levels of consultants on certain “lots” includes the bargain rate of £10 a day for a junior consultant from one of the world’s very biggest and most highly regarded strategic consulting firms? Or how about the same rate for a junior and only £30 a day for a senior consultant from one of the big four audit / consulting giants?

What’s going on here? Well, it is almost certainly related to how the firms “gamed” the evaluation process in order to win a place on the framework list of approved suppliers. CCS has had some unhappy experiences with consulting frameworks, including having to pull an entire exercise in 2017 when it became clear that the big firms weren’t going to make it onto the list!

Generally, when price is evaluated in the tender (along with quality and other service factors), the buyer asks for day rates for the different levels of consultant – perhaps junior, senior, manager, director, partner. Then there is some sort of adding up process, maybe weighted to reflect different likely use of the different levels, to arrive at an overall cost.

So let’s suppose your rates are something like this,

Junior                    £1000

Senior                   £1200

Manager              £1400

Director                £1800

Partner                 £2400

Let’s also suppose that the buyer is weighting each at 20% to arrive at a composite average rate – in our case here, that would be £1560 per day.

I might worry as a bidding firm that such a number could be on the high side. So how can I adjust that, without actually reducing my profit margins (and hitting my £600K a year partner’s salary)? Well, we are unlikely to be putting many Partner level people into these projects, particularly for government work. So we can take a bit of a hit on that rate. And as for juniors – well, let’s just work on the basis that when the Department for Internal Affairs comes looking for a proposal, we’ll say we haven’t got any available. Let’s face it, clients don’t really want the graduate trainees who can barely run a spreadsheet anyway.

But we might want to up the middle levels a bit to recover the lost margin on Partners, as that is where we really will be supplying people. So how about this?

Junior                    £0 (free!!)

Senior                   £1300

Manager              £1500

Director                £1800

Partner                 £2000

Our average rate now is £1320. That’s a 15% improvement in overall pricing and a lot more marks when it comes to the evaluation. And in reality, the likely revenues if anything might be a touch higher.

So why did CCS allow this to happen in this particular case? Well, it might have been difficult to stop – you can reject “unfeasibly low” bids under EU procurement regulations but the overall prices aren’t unfeasible. And of course CCS desperately wanted these firms on their list, so users will access the contract and CCS will make their margin, which funds the organisation.

Maybe all this doesn’t really matter, but it is worth remembering the lengths and the creativity that the partners in these firms will go to in order to protect their £500,000 – £1 million+ annual salaries. But do think carefully about your evaluation process if you want to avoid this sort of game-playing.

Finally, if you want to hear more interesting stories about buying professional services, positive and negative, I’m a keynote speaker at a (free) virtual conference on that topic organised by Matrix MM on Tuesday next week, 21st July. More details here!