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In episode 4 of my podcast, which you can now access from this website (see links below) I talk about fraud and corruption in buying, topics that feature heavily in the Bad Buying book. But I also get into the controversy over the UK government’s contracts with firms such as Serco and Sitel. These relate to the Covid “test and trace” process, which has not been a huge success in terms of its ability to identify contacts of people diagnosed with the virus or in persuading those folk to self-isolate.

The controversy has come first of all from the fact that private firms were awarded contracts to run the process without any competitive process, which raises issues of both favouritism and concerns about value for money. Competition is a key driver in terms of achieving value in public contracts, and without it, there are concerns that firms will make excess profits from the taxpayer funded work.

Whilst local government and NHS staff do some of this tracing work, many experts feel that they should have been asked to do more, and where comparisons can be made, the public sector seems to be out-performing the private. But the latest debate was triggered by questions to the health minister, Helen Whately, around how the private sector firms are being managed.

A conservative MP, David Davis, asked “What performance targets are in place for commercial providers of track and trace functions; what penalties can be imposed for failure to meet those targets; and what penalties have already been imposed for failure to meet those targets?”

Whately answered: “Contractual penalties are often unenforceable under English law, so they were not included in test-and-trace contracts with Serco or Sitel. Sitel and Serco are approved suppliers on the Crown Commercial Service contact centre framework and the contracts have standard performance and quality assurance processes in place. Some information on key performance indicators and service levels has been redacted from these published contracts as it is considered to be commercially sensitive.”

That has led to much discussion in the media around whether Whately was telling the truth. In the podcast, I conclude that this was a classic politicians answer – not a lie, but not giving the full picture either.

“Damages” as a type of contractual penalty can be unenforceable, the general rule being that they can’t be disproportionate to the value and nature of the contract. I can’t ask my builder for £1 million in damages if they don’t complete a small repair to my kitchen by the end of the month, even if we contractually agreed that timescale.

But there are certainly other ways of using “penalties”, in the sense of actions that will hurt the supplier if they don’t perform. Three clear options are:

  • Liquidated damages, agreed up-front (I might get £1,000 from my builder if we agreed that was a reasonable amount to compensate me for their failure to meet the timescale).
  • Service credits – a reduction in the  supplier’s subsequent invoices based on missed targets in this period.
  • Performance related contractual payments (“payment by results”) – putting it simply, the builder ain’t getting paid till the work is done!

I talk about all three in more detail on the podcast, but any (or all) could have been used in the tracing contract. Service credits are frequently used in government outsourced service contracts;  and in terms of performance-related payment, it would not have been unreasonable to have some element of the fee related to the number of people successfully traced by the firms, for instance. Perhaps that is in place; but surely Whately would have mentioned any performance mechanism if she could have?

Now, government procurement professionals aren’t stupid. I’m sure they would have considered these issues, and would have wanted to include performance clauses. But my suspicion is that the firms just refused to accept any serious performance penalties, and because of the urgency (and lack of competition), government backed off. You can have some sympathy actually for the firms – they may have argued that external factors that they don’t control would affect their performance, such as the robustness of the data they are provided with in order to do the tracking.

So it would not have been fair to transfer all the risk to them in terms of penalties. However, in an ideal world, we would always want the supplier to have appropriate incentives to perform well, and it is not clear those are really in place here.

Private Eye always has some interesting stories, and its coverage of the pandemic has been exemplary  – its medical writer has given some of the best advice and most balanced analysis I’ve seen anywhere.

But one article in the current edition shocked me. The magazine has been trying to find out more about the “track and trace contract”, awarded to Serco. Private Eye has had Serco in its sights since the tagging scandal some years ago, and coincidentally, four ex G4S managers are currently standing trial for fraud in connection with that same scandal.

So the magazine has been interested in how the firm is managing this new contract, which obviously is critical to how Covid is being handled in the UK. There have certainly been questions about how effective the service is proving, with reports that less than half the contacts are successfully traced, and tracing staff complaining of having nothing to do for days on end.

However, it appears that the vast majority of the actual people who are doing the work (such as it is) aren’t employed by Serco, but by sub-contractors. The firm is subcontracting operations to 29 other companies, and 85% (9,000 of a total of 10,500) of staff are apparently not employed directly by Serco. 

But when Private Eye asked which firms were acting in that role, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC – the department that “owns” this contract), refused to tell them. So under Freedom of Information rules, the magazine got hold of various documents. They showed that when the Labour Party’s Helen Hayes had asked the same question, the Department didn’t know the answer – and had to ask Serco!

Even more amazingly, it appears that Serco wouldn’t tell the Department the answer. The company’s response (that Private Eye saw) referred to a “panel of 29 subcontractors” and said that  those firms selected are either from a Crown Commercial Services framework or are “known providers”.

It is disturbing is that DHSC didn’t have this information at its fingertips when the question was first asked, and even more so if the supplier doesn’t actually have to disclose who they are using.  This is obviously an absolutely key contract, worth an awful lot of money and critical to the nation’s handling of the Covid crisis. How could you put this in place and not insist on knowing who your prime contractor was using as key sub-contractors? That sounds like a very weak contract and very poor contract management.

I know contracts have been let in haste, for understandable reasons in some cases at least. But there is no excuse for not having a grip on the key aspects of  how major suppliers are delivering the services. Understanding the supply chain must be part of that, and this failure is certainly a contender for Bad Buying – The Sequel!