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.