Brexit, public procurement, and Dominic Cummings

9th January 2020

Yesterday on the Financial Times website is a post by me on the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings’ approach to public procurement (set out most fully here).

Articles for the FT and any other mainstream media site have to be a certain length and in a certain style – but here I can add more background and explain more fully what this is about and why it (probably) matters.

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To start with: what is public procurement?

One good way of understanding public procurement is the difference it makes to what public authorities can and cannot do, compared with what private individuals and companies can and cannot do.

A private individual or a private sector company can – at least in theory – contract with whoever they want, subject to the general law of the land.

A private individual or private sector company seeking a supplier is not generally obliged to hold competitions, to advertise, or even contract with the lowest or most economical seller.

(Yes, there are various laws against racial and sexual discrimination, and so on – but the commercial aspects of the bargain are largely unregulated for private entities.)

In essence, a private individual or a private sector company is free to make a bad bargain, and to pick and choose its suppliers as they wish.

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And, but for the law of public procurement, the same would be the general position for public bodies, subject to their general legal power (or “vires” as lawyers would call it).

But public bodies are not generally free to make a bad bargain, or to pick and choose its suppliers as they wish.

Public bodies cannot just hire and fire suppliers as they wish.

The law of public procurement instead regulates what public bodies can and cannot do when they are making purchasing decisions – whether for goods, services, or grand development projects – from paper clips to aircraft carriers.

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Public procurement is about process – the principles and procedures public bodies must follow when making purchasing decisions.

The principles are broad and apply to all purchases, while the detailed procedures – set out in long regulations – are usually for high-value purchases.

The principles of public procurement are straightforward and commendable.

Purchasing authorities must advertise and specify what they want; they must set out and follow a transparent process; they must apply evaluation criteria consistently; they must treat tenderers equally and must not discriminate in favour of incumbent suppliers or national champions; and, in the event the public body fails to accord with such principles, the disappointed tenderers must have a remedy.

Much of the applicable law for these principles comes from the European Union.

This is because the law of public procurement is as much a part of the EU Single Market as competition law or the law regulating State aid.

Public contracts are lucrative, and so the markets for those contracts should be opened up to all potential suppliers, especially those from outside the member state.

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Described in the way above, the law of public procurement is a Good Thing.

Who could possibly be against?

Well.

There is a difference between neat theory and messy reality.

In practice, the law of public procurement (at least for high-value contracts) is not only subject to these broad, sensible principles but also prescriptive codes set out in pages and pages of regulations, paragraph after paragraph, sub-paragraph after sub-paragraph.

These regulations convert any major purchasing decision into an elaborate, lengthy administrative process.

And this thereby means that purchasing decisions are (or seem to be) often captured by process.

And as tender exercises are expensive and time-consuming, they in turn tend (no pun intended) to be dominated by large specialist companies who can afford to sink months (even years) of time and thousands of pounds on each bid, without any guarantee of success.

Often the suppliers assume that they will lose more of these bids than they will win, and their commercial models reflect this.

And when they win, they can then sub-contract the work anyway.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) do not have a real hope of winning these tenders – as any long tender process is a huge burden, with a great deal of work without the prospect of any payment.

For SMEs to bid for such contracts routinely is impossible.

And the public sector bodies will not have any problem will this: there is a process to follow, and they have no costs pressures for the process to be any speedier or cheaper for anyone else.

Some public procurement exercises are conducted at the most leisurely of paces, without any thought for the commercial burden this places on potential suppliers.

The result is, in practice, a cosy, settled relationship, with the same small group of suppliers bidding for each high-value contract.

There will also be familiar faces: the same procurement professionals on both sides, meeting again and again, and then swapping sides as those with experience of purchasing for public authorities become valuable recruits for the suppliers.

There is, at least in my experience as a former government public procurement lawyer, a problem here.

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But it also can be said that the law of public procurement, like democracy, is the worst system, apart from all the others.

While the law of public procurement is over-prescriptive and uncommercial, a sudden abolition of the law of public procurement would create even more problems.

Without a law of public procurement, there would probably be even fewer tenders.

Settled incumbents would seek extensions and amendments, and officials would nod-along as this would be the path of last resistance.

For all its manifest faults, the law of public procurement does force public authorities to specify and openly advertise its requirements, and it ensures that the risk of a disappointed tenderer challenging a decision means that a process is followed as consistently and transparently as possible.

There is not even any legal requirement on public authorities to go for the lowest price, as it is open to set price against other factors for the most economically advantageous tender (or “MEAT” – yes, public procurement is a MEAT market).

Yes: at the margins, the approach promoted by Dominic Cummings, of appointing brilliant and charismatic project managers to hire and fire suppliers, could achieve some brilliant outcomes.

But for the mundane reality of the thousands of purchases public bodies make each day, there is the case that the law of public procurement ensures a bad situation is not as bad as it could otherwise be.

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So what can be done?

As a former central government public procurement lawyer (and I still practise in the area), there seems to me to two things which could be done to improve public procurement.

One before the public procurement exercise begins, and the other more-or-less comes afterwards.

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Before major procurements, there is a tendency of officials (and politicians) to over-specify and to set “bespoke” specifications (often called, without irony, “solutions”.

For major IT projects, for example, the specifications can seem like a flip chart of the inane “brainstorming” you get at one of those dire team “away days”.

(Shudder.)

The focus, of course, should be on commercially off-the-shelf products where possible, and on systems which have already been tried and tested.

For, believe it or not, public sector bodies are not the only large entities that procure complex works and services.

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And then we come to the contracts – the “terms and conditions”.

(Oh dear.)

Many of the supposed public procurement disasters – from PFI to superfluous aircraft carriers – are not directly down to the process followed but to the contracts signed at the end.

A contract, of course, is a legal instrument that regulates foreseeable risks for parties in a transaction.  

But for many major government suppliers the contract is not used to regulate risk but to eliminate it.

To make sure that the supplier gets the benefit of the contract price regardless of performance.

Hence the penalty payments, early cancellation fees, change control procedures, and so on.

What is distasteful about this is that government suppliers already have the happy benefit of the public bodies being reliable payers.

Public bodies rarely default on contract payments.

But government suppliers, and their lawyers, want more – and go through contracts seeking every possible amendment so as to free the supplier from any risk.

And they often get away with this for two reasons.

First, public bodies sometimes do not have access to experienced and skilled commercial lawyers capable of seeing the implications of often innocent-seeming provisions.

Such contract lawyers tend to work in the private sector.

Second, suppliers use what leverage they have – knowing that certain projects are politically driven and “too big to fail” – so as to insist on contractual protections.

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The law of public contracts and public procurement can be improved – and Cummings and others are right to highlight its many problems.

But more important than wiping away procedures (even if they are far too prescriptive) is more transparency and better legal advice.

This, of course, is anathema, to Cummings, who dislikes both lawyers and freedom of information.

Nonetheless, if public bodies were to publish all public contracts after they were let – and no cynical hiding behind “commercial confidentiality” – then suppliers would be less relaxed about going for one-sided contracts.

As this is about public money, and as suppliers get the benefit of reliable payment, there is no good reason for non-disclosure.

Public bodies should also be stricter as to the burdens that lengthy procurement exercises place on suppliers, so as to avoid SMEs being squeezed out by the conglomerates.

And public bodies should be under a positive obligation to set out publicly the worst case scenarios of contracts (penalty payments, early cancellation fees, change control procedures, and so on) before any contract is signed.

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As the UK leaves the EU, there is a case that the law of public procurement can be reformed.

The crucial principles of equal treatment and transparency need not be threatened by this.

Nonetheless, some public procurement regime will be required if the UK is serious about entering into post-Brexit international trade agreements – as access to lucrative UK public contracts are among the most valuable things the UK can offer in trade negotiations.

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The law of public procurement can be less detailed and prescriptive, as Cummings as others aver.

But this will not solve all the problems.

As I conclude in the FT piece, Cummings has not fully set out the specification of the problem, let alone procured a solution.

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26 thoughts on “Brexit, public procurement, and Dominic Cummings”

  1. “For major IT projects, for example ………the focus, of course, should be on commercially off-the-shelf products where possible, and on systems which have already been tried and tested.”

    As a former IT consultant (Now thankfully retired) I worked on bids for many such IT projects. I can assure you that that approach has seen the eventual doom of the majority of them. that and the inevitable fact that “risk averse” people interpret and apply the procurement rules and thus err very much on tne side of caution

    Otherwise

    1. The private sector is better at at hiding and then burying its mistakes than the public sector.

      I gather ICT projects commissioned by either sector that come in on time, on budget and to specification are rare birds?

      But the taxpayer, more than the shareholder, feels aggrieved when they see their money wasted.

      Public sector failures (or what are perceived to be failures) are front page news.

      Private sector failures less so when they get reported at all.

      And, yet, people remained surprised by the level of risk aversion in the public sector …

      1. They tend to be different types of projects with different drivers and concerns. I’ve worked in IT for 20 years, mostly in private and most private IT projects don’t fail in the same way. People’s jobs, reputations and integrity are on the line. This is not the same in public projects where the contractors can just take the money and walk away.

        1. Monster, the designer of jobsearch websites told Iain Duncan Smith that if they designed a website to DWP’s specifications then they would suffer reputational damage.

          He wanted a site to provide evidence for benefit sanctions whereas they wanted to design a website to help employers fill jobs and jobseekers find work.

          They walked away from the contract.

          As for Iain Duncan Smith and IT in the context of Universal Credit then John Seddon’s article is well worth a read:

          “While we should take our hats off to Iain Duncan Smith for his thorough analysis of social welfare problems, he has been duped when it comes to delivering the solution, the universal credit.

          Duncan Smith has been persuaded that delivery of this big IT scheme won’t fail as others have done.”

          https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/blog/2011/sep/29/universal-credit-fail

          John Seddon’s book, “The Whitehall Effect: How Whitehall became the enemy of great public services and what we can do about it” is the book Dominic Cummings should be insisting Ministers read after he has read and understood it.

          I am not on commission, but I felt on reading the book that Seddon had been in some of the meetings in which I had sat over the years.

          “Reading this book reminds us that John Seddon is a psychologist (says former Scottish Government minister Jim Mather). He proves that his great contribution has been to take the Deming emphasis on quality, continuous improvement and the challenging of orthodoxies into the arena of services and meet the unique needs of real people with humanity, kindness and flexibility.

          And by “real people”, I mean clients, staff, senior management and policy-makers.

          John highlights that helping people back to their most sustainable levels of self-reliance and in some cases getting their lives “back on the rails” is the kindest and most cost-effective public services strategy as well as being the most fulfilling for our public service professionals.

          He is also very helpful in establishing that any service or any policy intervention ought to have three components:

          The purpose – as defined by the legitimate and reasonable service user(s)
          The measure(s) that can convince those users that the “purpose” is being met.
          The method(s) that can be developed and used to deliver the measures and meet the purpose.

          In stating that, he is adamant, that these three components work best when the policy-maker defines the purpose exclusively in terms that users would support and then stops. Leaving the people-who-do-the-work to decide on the measures and develop the methods that progressively produce better and better results.

          He is equally adamant that targets in the context of purpose are toxic. They can become the de facto purpose of any service and encouraging people to game the system and cheat.

          That single insight is worth the price of the book for it offers:-

          The politician the chance to genuinely lead and avoid being too prescriptive and wrong
          The manager that chance to deliver meaningful local leadership get better results and higher morale
          Front line staff the chance of better results, more autonomy and more fulfilment
          The user the chance of better crisper services, increased self-sufficiency & self-respect”

          For those unfamiliar with Deming then he, as much as any other single person, is why Japan is home to companies like Toyota, currently mass producing 150,000 cars a year in Derbyshire to bespoke standards.

          Cummings is not a people person, he lacks empathy and good social skills. And I do not think he sees those as failings in the context of his approach to work (and life).

          I imagine if he could have himself cloned as he is today then there would be an army of “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” marching across Westminster and Whitehall, falling out violently amongst themselves.

          If memory serves, Cummings was the brains behind the ‘very successful’ free schools programme, because structures are way more important than the methods and the quality of delivery, who flounced out of the Department for Education after it all got too much for him. And before he walked off the job, he was turning up for work at all hours when it suited him.

          But this caps it all …

          “It seems that Cummings is trying to reinvent the technocracy. But many of his ideas of how to do it seem to come from the era between 2004 and 2014 – a time of “move fast and break things” rather than the careful, strategic avoidance of unintended consequences that the world has moved on to since.”

          https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/05/cummings-whitehall-weirdos-boris-johnson-maths-civil-service

          So Dom?

  2. sounds like dom wanting to pull the rug out from under people again (similar to the civil service reforms) – incidentally 100k disabled people have just had their mobility cars taken away, some are now housebound, this was the process of “transferring” people from DLA to PIP.

  3. .Are you missing a word here?
    “As this is about public money, and as suppliers get the benefit of reliable payment, there is no good reason for disclosure.”
    This sentence appears to say the opposite of what I would expect

      1. Commercial in confidence covers a wide range of sins.

        I was working on a project to identify and recruit potential construction tutors amongst those on long term sickness benefit, who had worked in construction. A national DWP study had indicated that a fair few such people existed, but the data within the study only went down to regional level. I wanted data down to the level of Birmingham and Solihull (and, ideally, lower).

        The project was inspired by the fact that the people behind the developers of a construction college in Bordesley Green had omitted to mention, before the funding was agreed and building work started, that there was a shortage, a genuine shortage, of construction tutors. That the college would not actually be fully staffed on completion. It was a bit late to ask for the money back so an answer to the recruitment problem was needed.

        As it happened, a contract, Pathways to Work, had recently been let by DWP to a provider to work with people on Incapacity Benefit, who would participate in the programme on a voluntary basis.

        I attended a meeting outside of DWP where some of the provider’s staff came along to promote their services. During the discussion they revealed they were building up a client database, including information on an individual’s last occupation.

        I was not the only one interested in the data. I, however, explained all that I wanted was aggregates of the data ie how many ex bricklayers etc. Were we to look to recruit ex building workers for a programme to train them up as tutors for working in college(s) then we would work with the provider to identify suitable candidates.

        The two staff agreed to my request and I awaited the data with interest.

        When they got back to their office, they were told the information was being treated as commercial in confidence and only being shared, if at all, with DWP in Sheffield. Never mind that sharing it (with me) would be of potential benefit to both the provider and their clients, any request for it would have to be made to DWP in Sheffield.

        I was at that time on loan from Jobcentre Plus to the East Birmingham and North Solihull Regeneration Zone (funded by Advantage West Midlands) so I suggested to the Chief Executive that he might make a request under the Freedom of Information Act alongside any application to DWP outside of my line management chain.

        In the end, we decided it was too much bother to try either approach.

        Had we been working up an application for funding then the information would have been very necessary to prove there was a local pool of ex construction workers, incapable of working on site, but who might be potentially trained up as tutors.

        We could already prove that construction tutors could be recruited from amongst the industry.

  4. Taking a worm’s eye view, the nature of public procurement has changed significantly over the last twenty five years or so.

    Back in the 1990s, an Executive Officer in the Jobcentre on Erdington High Street had both the power and responsibility to clean and keep functioning the vertical blinds in her office alongside her many other duties.

    Therefore, she was able to source, within the appropriate guidelines, a local company to clean and repair the blinds. She might then, if satisfied with the work, share the company’s details with fellow officers in other Jobcentres.

    Then in 1998, the Department for Work and Pensions transferred ownership and management of its estate to Telereal Trillium under a 20-year contract known as PRIME. In 2003, the PRIME contract was expanded to include an additional 1,100 properties relating to the Employment Service estate, essentially the Jobcentre network.

    Arranging to clean and maintain the blinds at Erdington Jobcentre became wholly Telereal Trillium’s job.

    The upshot being that SMEs (using either the narrow or broad definition) had to pitch not to DWP for work, but Telereal Trillium, instead.

    I think it highly unlikely that even a consortium of SMEs (using the broad definition), assuming a project leader expert in knitting fog could have been found to lead it, would have been able to take on the whole DWP estate.

    May be a good starting point for any review of government procurement would be to look again at how decisions are made as to what it is appropriate to deliver in house, buy in or outsource and at what level within a body to let any contracts?

    I suspect I am asking too much that the matter be approached in a way eschewing political ideology.

    When Peter Hain became DWP Secretary of State he decreed that the default option for delivering adviser services to the unemployed would be DWP staff, unless a good case was developed for doing otherwise.

    Extensive market testing had shown private providers invariably worked most with the easiest to help into work, guaranteeing them bonus payments. Jobcentre advisers were not influenced by such incentives.

    The Employment Zone pilot here in (part of ) Birmingham had had three private providers vying for custom, except they would not accept a contract requiring them to sell their wares to Jobcentre advisers. Advisers who would then guide their clients as to the most appropriate provider of the three for them.

    They had agreed to a method of random allocation that ensured they got a share of the eligible client group equal to the size of their contract.

    The pilot had started with just one contracted provider, but someone thought a bit of competition was worth trying.

    The pilot built around a black box approach of giving providers a sum of money per client to get them into work, using any legal means, failed. Some providers, however, did better than others at getting bonus payments from clients starting and staying in work for fifteen weeks. Unsurprisingly, most of those providers were businesses whose core activity was being an employment agency, and many of their successful clients signed back on in the sixteenth week after starting employment.

    Unsurprisingly, Iain Duncan Smith’s Work Programme, to all intents and purposes, a national roll out of Labour’s piloted Employment Zones, failed abysmally.

    I cannot imagine that he was not advised against the idea, but in Government procurement has a problem not to be found in the private sector, ideologically motivated politicians and special advisers who know best.

    I remember meeting the head of Yorkshire Bank who had been brought in to head up Jobentre services (yes, Dominic, it does happen). A nice chap who said it was rather overwhelming to discover his shareholders now encompassed the whole of the electorate.

    He scrapped staff bonuses on taking up post, because they mitigated against good team working. The Civil Service, in general, had adopted them as an example of what was thought (by Ministers and their advisers?) to be good, private sector practice.

    As an aside, PPI mis-selling has been partly blamed on staff having targets to sell the (almost pure profit) policies that resulted in bonus pay outs.

  5. Cummings has quoted Bismarck in response to a comment arguing against a couple of points in the blog to which you have linked.

    That would be the Bismarck who said that in a world of five powers, be one of a group of three?

    I am not sure that the master of Realpolitik would have considered Brexit as a way of complying with such an observation.

    By the way, you are a better man than me, if you have read the whole post?

    And is anyone becoming increasingly concerned by Cummings’ constant referencing of projects that are military in nature?

    His overview of the development of the tank might drive any review of military procurement in 2020, if he understood that the German tank programme of the 1930s and 1940s had a growing tendency to treat Hitler and not the crews as the ultimate user of the weapon.

    Moriarty’s negative comments on the Tiger tank that Oddball acquires at the end of Kelly’s Heroes are founded in reality.

    The people who have to use the kit should be seen as the ultimate customers and be involved in its design at the inception of a project (and that goes for almost any project or procurement process).

    1. “The people who have to use the kit should be seen as the ultimate customers and be involved in its design at the inception of a project (and that goes for almost any project or procurement process).”

      Yes. Absolutely. I remember having to try to use computer programmes when they were introduced for running student grants services (blimey – that gives my age away…). They had been developed by suppliers who talked only to managements, not to frontline staff. Management only knew the outcomes, not the processes by which they were reached day in and day out, and so there were major gaps in the systems imposed on us.

      Eventually they were put right of course, when we – the actual users – got to have a say. But there was a lot of error on the way.

      1. When the Government scrapped the contract for a Social Security payment card for use in Post Offices, it was being designed to help them retain custom as giro and book payments were phased out, EDS, the developer of the new system, moved to sue the Government.

        Not for the loss of the contract, but for the projected loss of earnings that they had expected to result from selling the proven software to other users.

        The software would, by that stage, have been live tested by millions of UK Social Security recipients, pensioners amongst them, undertaking countless transactions and the bugs sorted out in the process.

        And all at the expense of the UK taxpayer, both as user of the payment card and the funder of it.

        EDS was then still in the hands of Ross Perot whose management style, weekends and overtime are for wimps, would surely have appealed to Dominic Cummings?

  6. Two words which don’t appear in your piece, David, are fraud and corruption. Has Cummings addressed this in any of his pronouncements on the topic, I wonder? I know that when he was one of Gove’s Spads he railed against procurement procedures and is alleged to have said that he didn’t understand why ministers couldn’t just pick the bid they liked best.

    For all its faults, the UK’s civil service has avoided the blight of systemic corruption. There have, of course, been cases of corruption but to nothing like the extent found in many other EU countries, let alone in the developing world. Giving ministers and, I’m guessing, contractor project managers the ability the spend and manage huge amounts of public money with very little oversight and very loose procedures is a recipe for disaster.

    Cummings, like most ideologues, seems not to take into account human nature and the fact that pretty much everyone has their price. He wants to be, like Steve Bannon, a disruptor. That’s possible in Silicon Valley where the only money at risk is that of investors and failure is not only frequent (around 60% of Silicon Valley startups fail) but is a necessary component of innovation. But public sector organisations can’t be allowed to fail and the taxpayer always underwrites failure.

    Cummings is attempting to move fast and break things, which is part of the disruption culture. Most established, long lived, businesses don’t work like this at all: they tend to be quite conservative and move forward carefully, ensuring that they don’t innovate for the sake of it and minimising risk. Breaking things is easy. Introducing change that works, long term, and minimises risk isn’t.

    But my guess is that – like his libertarian weirdo predecessor, Steve Hilton – within two or three years Cummings will leave the UK for California leaving others to pick up the pieces.

    1. The fraud aspect is important to remember. I worked in local authority in 90s and there was still a need for tamper proof envelopes with no distinguishing details, to prevent bids being “lost.” Chats on the golf course and more sinister agreements still go on – the construction sector union blacklist was a recent issue.

      David is right that the solution isn’t a whole new process for the short staffed public sector. It is better resourced procurement teams, with legal support, better IT systems and a higher regard for the value of good procurement. I’ve seen bids with insurance rates far exceeding the project need meaning only the largest firms will apply, and certification for care homes requested in a landscape bid, as a previous document has been used as a template. I work with public sector staff where even the smallest procurement task is torturous, not because of the legal requirements but because of the internal process, often requiring a finance code or sign off that needs a disproportionate effort to achieve.

      Spending more money on a seemingly failing process won’t be appealing to some, but from my experience it is lack of expertise and poorly resourced IT rather than an issue with the process.

  7. Many of these regulations and over-prescriptive rules are domestic. They could have been simplified at any time.

    I also understand from colleagues who routinely negotiate for the governement major contracts of outsourcing in IT, healthcare and governement back office functions as well as major IT projects that the governement has become much better at negotiating and that now arguably the balance has tipped too far in the other direction: the governement has added so many constraints on suppliers and has required so many JV type arrangements where the governement gets a cut on the profits as well as imposed such hefty volume discount clause that it becomes very difficult for the suppliers to make a profit. The result is that they lower the standards and this leads to very poor delivery.

  8. Having been on the other side of local authority contracts they are far from leisurely but, on the contrary, rushed, last-minute and inadequately thought-through, perhaps partly because of the incessant cuts to LAs. So maybe central government procurement is different from LA procurement. They are also far from prompt payers, which is a huge problem for cash-strapped SMEs.
    Another problem for SMEs seeking to get involved in LA, or indeed, NHS, contracting is the unwillingness of the LA or NHS to accept any risk to the contract at all; all risk seems to be on the provider.
    Maybe there is not just “public procurement”, but several different strands of public sector procurement whose practice and impact on contractors and prospective contractors varies markedly between different branches of central government, local authorities, NHS, and others……

    1. I worked on late payment policy when I started in the Civil Service in 1986. It is a perennial problem (and I still bear the scars from my 14 month stint on the subject).

      My father had worked his way up from the shop floor in a plastics factory in Perry Barr, Birmingham, to become the company’s credit controller so I was not unfamiliar with the issues to say the least.

      For example, the company has over the years made components and products for the likes of the Ministry of Defence, London Underground and circuit board makers, and had dealings with Israel via intermediaries so as to avoid being blacklisted by Arab nations.

      Research undertaken back in 1987 showed that the public sector and larger businesses in the private sector tied in second place for poor payment practices; 30% each going by the survey amongst small businesses.

      In the lead were SMEs on 40% …

      Have those figures changed much in the interim?

    1. This is is how I like to write my blog, and as it is my blog, I get to write it how I like.

      Other bloggers and blogs are available.

  9. This discussion of public procurement is very interesting (not a phrase you often hear!).

    Having worked in this field in the EU, I agree that there are many, many drawbacks to the open competitive tendering system – but it is still probably the worst system apart from all the others. I was warned, when I started working on EU-funded contracts in ex-Communist states that the risks were not in standard bribery but in fiddled tender and contract conditions, and that was right.

    But it would be an illusion for Cummings – or anyone else – to think that by leaving the EU we would be free of all those pesky burdens of transparency and fairness. The EU and about 20 other countries all adhere to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) and these set out the principles on which EU rules are based. Unless Cummings wants to tear up the agreements with Australia, Canada, the US and others, as well as the EU, leaving the EU will change very little.

  10. Thank you, it was well worth reading: interesting, concise and on an important subject.

    One sentence says the opposite of what of what I think you meant to write, so you might want to add “non-” before “disclosure”.

    “As this is about public money, and as suppliers get the benefit of reliable payment, there is no good reason for disclosure”.

  11. I set up an office in Bristol as the South West representative of the Regional Supply Office, a DTI initiative in 1995. (There were 10 of us around the country.) My co-workers were all Private industry procurement professionals, I was just the office manager.

    Our remit was to introduce SME’s to each other and to the larger (local) manufacturers; to finesse the supply chain, and to keep manufacturing turning over. We were ‘lucky’ that we had industries like BAe Systems in Bristol; Honda in Swindon; the dockyards in Plymouth; Westlands in Yeovil; and such like, to cater to.

    Getting the SME’s into a contract with these big players was fraught with red tape, and restrictive conditions on what was or was not acceptable. Many SME’s thought it a waste of time (because it took so long to agreement), and carried on doing their ‘own thing’. A lovely little engineering company in Gloucestershire were told their (ideal) nuts and bolts should be made from a certain kind of steel (imported), to which they refused to lower their standards. Of course, they lost a lucrative contract.

    Government has no small part to play in the decreasing loss (death?) of manufacturing capability in the UK. By 2000, the Regional Supply Offices were subsumed by the (awful) Regional Development Agencies, and supply chains disappeared into the mist. Hard to comply contracts were an initial cause of decline, but apathy and greed by Government were major factors.

    Thank you for an excellent article.

    1. “For major IT projects, for example ………the focus, of course, should be on commercially off-the-shelf products where possible, and on systems which have already been tried and tested.”

      True enough, but all organisations think themselves unique and want to modify the software to fit their processes rather than the other way round. Configuration can go some way to doing that, but more often than not new code needs to be written.

  12. This: As this is about public money, and as suppliers get the benefit of reliable payment, there is no good reason for non-disclosure.

    There are several reasons why “full disclosure” can be detrimental to suppliers & in particular, the eventual winner of a tender. Many contracts can contain the unique characteristics, selling points, pricing, processes and innovations which determined the outcome, and how the contract will be fulfilled.

    Unscrupulous suppliers (there are few!) have sought access to these contracts and tender documents under FoI to plunder these for other public sector opportunities to the detriment of those potential buyers as they rarely have the expertise to deliver.

    The ICO has confirmed these documents should be exempt from disclosure under FoI; however it’s still too easy for public sector employees to fall into the trap & disclose anyway.

  13. The trouble with planning is that you can’t do anything you didn’t think of three years ago. On the other hand, having a good strategy takes a lot of decisions for you. You pays your money and takes your choice. If you’re big, you pay a lot of money for a less flexible service – so better leave cleaning the classrooms to the local school to sort out with a firm or person who knows and likes the school.

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