Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Lessons in centralising spend: NAO Report 'Improving government procurement''

The NAO has now published their report on 'Improving government procurement' - perhaps the title is a bit misleading as it is really about the effectiveness of the latest iteration of 'ye olde Buying Agency', the GPS. In many respects it is a recycling of old messages. Nevertheless, 'what goes around, comes around' and I am sure it is no coincidence we have also have the PASC Inquiry into procurement.

Some paraphrased thoughts before you knuckle down for a riveting read of the report though:

  1. In our world it's always good to understand who is the buyer and who is the supplier. The buyers, in this example, are decentralised budget holding departments and one of the potential suppliers is GPS;
  2. Buyers expect to set the terms for suppliers - they like caveat emptor;
  3. If the supplier's Chairman of the Board (Cabinet Office Minister) and Head of Marketing (CPO) say "I'm going to be your monopoly supplier which you must use", that doesn't mean the buyers will necessarily see that as a good thing. Nor does it mean that the alternative suppliers see it as a good thing; 
  4. There's a clear incentive for the buyers and the former suppliers to see the new monopoly as a threat to their freedom, bringing with it the additional risk (barrier to change) of perceived poor quality service, worse prices and complacency. So expect resistance to change, if for no other reason, buyers like buying - visualise images of old ladies fending of those trying to steal their purse; 
  5. Equally, if the buyers see this as just the latest iteration of what has gone before (say, ye olde Buying Agency, PSA, BuyingSolutions, etc.) and they were able to stick to their old ways successfully in the past, don't be surprised if they use that strategy again;
  6. Assuming you are going to encounter resistance to change, it is a good idea to 'sell' rather than 'tell' - 'telling' just encourages resistance to change to your monopoly. 'Selling' involves listening to the customer and setting out compelling, irresistible and realisable benefits which win the buyer hearts and minds over their perceived costs;
  7. You sell buy 'winning hearts and minds' - if you don't win their hearts they will hanker after what suits them best and try to brazen it out. If enough brazen it out, then they will retain the old way;
  8. There are practicalities involved in migrating from buyers old contracts to the sellers new contracts - think about contract end dates;
  9. If you say "you must use my monopoly or else", you better be sure what "or else" means because if you have no 'stick' they can just say "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, ...";

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

What happens when you ask 1 Knight, 2 Professors, 1 Dr and 1 CEO a simple question on procurement?

Today brought, as I understand it, the final oral evidence session of the Public Administration Select Committee Inquiry into procurement. That's three sessions of oral evidence and heaven only knows how many words of written evidence. I have already discussed the Inquiry and the need for caution in taking opinions.

Now I am wondering what on earth the Select Committee are to make of the evidence taken.

Today's evidence was generally focussed on the complexities of Defence Procurement and the answers came from a Knight (KCB), two Professors, a PhD and a CEO. You would have expected differing views, but I would have expected them to have been able to answer simple questions, for example:
  1. Define Value for Money? and,
  2. Explain what reverse auctions are, how they work, and what are the benefits?
Alas that proved too difficult for the 'distinguished panel' and the Select Committee are left scratching their heads.

Some wonderfully digressing opinions into the world of 'SMEs don't get a bad deal in public procurement', defence contractors don't gain from the business of war, the UK strategy for supporting the over throw of Gadaffi, indecisiveness of whether UK Defence Procurement is/is not world class, 'we don't have a defence manufacturing strategy - oh yes we do', etc..  But a strange thing seemed to happen - some nonsense was being talked but the 'distinguished panel' appeared unable to pluck up the courage to challenge the nonsense.  Instead the 'distinguished panel' opted to exchange polite smiles - I suppose that's what happens when you've a Knight, two Profs, a Dr and a CEO behind one table!

Having said that, Professor Christopher Bovis of University of Hull absolutely shone and was able to succinctly articulate a 'can do' approach within the law, and there were other useful nuggets particularly around GOCO.  Other than that, opinions and a lack of critical evaluation.

Yes, what on earth will the PASC make of that evidence? Thankfully the PASC seemed to be well informed and knew their subject.

PS If you do choose to view the evidence watch out for some great examples of physical behaviour to avoid when a camera is on you which are too bad good to share!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Osborne lessons in procurement performance management

“To bring some accountability to economic policy, I have set out eight benchmarks for the next Parliament against which you will be able to judge whether a Conservative Government is delivering on this new economic model... So we will maintain Britain’s AAA credit rating.”
"[... maintaining Britain's AAA is] not the be-all and end-all"
Inappropriate lessons:

  1. Agreeing in advance what it is absolutely paramount for procurement to deliver isn't that important - just say what you think is politically acceptable and re-write, with the benefit of hindsight, if you completely miss the #1 priority;  
  2. Do not use measurable KPIs as there is too much clarity if your strategy doesn't work;
  3. There's always the hope that food supply chain debacles or political scandals will act as a distraction.
Appropriate lessons:
  1. Plans don't always go as well as you hope;
  2. Regularly review your strategy for appropriateness - agree a change of KPIs before it's too late to gain ownership;
  3. Hubris, stubbornness and blind optimism do not deliver long term benefits. 

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Apple poisoned?

I‘m sure many of you are aware that Apple’s logo is actually a poisoned apple. Strange isn’t it. Well it’s actually a memorial to Alan Turing the intellectual computer heavy weight who reputedly poisoned himself by apple. Of course there’s a separate conspiracy theory which provides a more sinister version, more in keeping with Snow White’s stepmother administering the poison.

But what puzzles me is how Apple appear to have let the sweetness of their ubiquitous products numb my conscience – have I been temped and poisoned?

I would have prided myself as having a moral conscience in terms of my buying. I led one of the organisations I worked for to becoming an early adopter of a Fair Trade Procurement Policy. Over 15 years ago I attempted ethical supply chain mapping. In my personal life I tend to buy ethically and boycott the ‘badies’ - I haven't been to Starbucks for months. Yet, with Apple I seem to suffer from some sort of ethical blindness – why is that?

Some months ago I discussed the working conditions of those working for one of Apple’s iPhone5 strategic suppliers – they’d been asked to sign disclaimers that they wouldn’t commit suicide and there had been riots in the factory. A few weeks ago I referred to issues relating to a third party providing child labour – credit to Apple though as they appeared to have uncovered the problem themselves.  Today we learn of evidence that an iPad sub-contractor has been polluting a river, poisoning fish and leaving the water unfit for in crop cultivation. – allegedly this has been going on for two years! 

It would be difficult to look at that evidence and say Apple are managing an ethical supply chain. Yet, what surprises me is that even today I ‘considered’ switching to an iPhone. Strange isn’t it. Somehow Apple seemed to have worked an amazing trick on my own conscious.

Perhaps you recognise the same phenomena?   

I stand amazed that Apple just do not seem capable of applying their unequal creativity to procurement management.

As the mighty retail supermarket have reached their nemesis through the horse meat debacle I just wonder how long Apple's supply chain can continue to be poisoned before Apple customers have an allergic reaction. Perhaps Apple have achieved a bizarre status, being able to profess CSR while the news tells a different story and the consumer conscience turns a blind eye.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Procurement lessons from the Vicky Pryce trial?

There once was a TV programme called 'Give us a clue' - in the light of the Vicky Pryce Trial there may be potential for a new docudrama called 'We haven't got a clue'.

Yet, let's face it, who in the world would ever have guessed that a trial about speeding points could have raked up so much venom in what might now be viewed as a 'problem family'. What's that they say about fury and a woman scorned?

But aside from the evidence extracted by the lawyers, there's another story based on the ability of laymen and women to make a good judgement. It appears the jury wanted to do a good job but for some reason the ability to do so eluded them. What's more, the jury's inability eluded the judge.

So when the jury passed the judge ten questions which they wanted guidance on, he voiced the view that the jury "had a fundamental deficit in understanding". He arrived at that conclusion because the jury were asking questions, which, in his mind, some had already been answered and others irrelevant. Now we have learnt that two thirds of juries may be as 'clueless' and lack understanding of the advice judges provide. Does that justify ripping up a centuries old legal system and one which has been able to cope with jurors who couldn't even read and write?

Isn't there something in our system about 'beyond reasonable doubt'? I quite like the idea that if I was on trial and the jury were in doubt, the defendant gets the benefit of the doubt. But equally, if I was the victim, I quite like the idea that they would give me the benefit of the doubt - but that's not what our justice system is about!

Which is better? That a jury ask questions over and over and over again until they can understand the answers, or the jury just say, "to pot with this, the trial is only about penalty points, let's toss a coin".

But aside from that, if a questioner doesn't understand the answer, is it the questioner's fault or the fault of person who gives the answer which wasn't clear enough?

One thing I learnt from my PhD is that not asking, what appear to be, stupid questions, is stupid. Sometimes questioning the edifices on which so much of received wisdom is a good thing. If that were not the case how on earth did we ever manage to progress from mud huts to wifi?

But I have also dealt with many senior decision makers who are being presented with increasingly detailed technical information on which to make procurement decisions. Heaven help us if, out of frustration they start tossing coins because, we as procurement technical experts just can't convey in clear understandable language what we're talking about.

So the next time you are tempted to say "these people just don't get it", think about the Vicky Pryce trial and ask who's fault is that?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The spectrum of personal accountability

Given the allegations regarding the sale of helicopters to India, corruption is quite topical at the minute. Corruption distorts the procurement process, paradoxically switches power away from the buyer and leads to additional cost. I am sure we agree it is a very bad thing. However, what if the cost of being guilty of corruption led to the ultimate cost, the cost of the perpetrators life? Would that bring corruption to an end? No, this isn't some grotesque and sick joke, it is real life; or perhaps, real death.

Hanging is the price which has just been meted out to four people in Iran found guilty of corruption - it appears an unprecedented judgement. The corruption relates to "disrupting the economic system" through forging letters of credit from a partially state-owned bank which in turn enabled the funding of 40 companies. There were 39 defendants of which 25 have been convicted. Four are staring at the hangman's noose. Two deputy ministers, two director generals, and several government officials escape the noose but face 10 years in prison. There are suggestions of a political objective being behind the sentencing.  

I think most of us would be absolutely horrified, yet personal accountability is what this is about. We want personal accountability to mean something when bankers disrupt the West's economic system. We want personal accountability when the NHS fails individuals. We seem to get a bit lost though when it comes to food supply chain accountability.

If the death sentence is abhorrent (I assume you share my view that it is) and it is at one end of the spectrum, and walking away with a bonus (reward) is at the other end of the spectrum; what is an acceptable level of personal accountability? Personally, I don't have an answer but I do think we need to start thinking about what 'appropriate' looks like in terms of procurement personal accountability.

Now, what if you were asked, during a job interview: "What level of personal accountability are you prepared to accept?" How would you answer? 

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

'The CPO: Transforming Procurement in the Real World' - Book Review

This was truly a first for me - a novel written on procurement transformation. Yet, as a novel it also crosses the boundary of a text book with most of the chapters cleverly summarising the key 'CPO Best Practices'. It is written by four A.T. Kearney consultants - a very clever marketing ploy.

As a novel it's not going to win the Man Booker but it is an easy read and does have a reasonable narrative. Sometimes contrived, yet I found myself wanting to keep reading to find out what happened next.

It is certainly a case study in procurement transformation and a good catch-up/revision for practitioners. It would be a useful 'book club' discussion topic for any procurement team. Ideal as a introductory text for a Strategic Procurement degree. With some useful tools in performance management and category management  outlined. I can't see me recommending it to a CX though.

It's a bit misleading to say the book has 226 pages. Deletion of the many blank pages and excessive 'comic strip abstracts' to each of the 39 very short chapters, you may really only have somewhere around 175 pages! That raises another point: what purpose do the abstract/comic strip sections serve? I felt they broke the rhythm of the book and after the first few chapters opted not to read them - that provided a better read.

I will not remotely share any of the plot as the book is worth reading and with the benefit of online purchasing you can pick it up for less than £10 including postage and receive within a week. Yes, it is worth a tenner.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

GO Awards: Cynic, Entrant, Sponsor, Judge, Winners, Losers

The closing date for entering the 2013/2014 GO Awards is 8 March. The publication of the closing date reminded me of my own journey from a cynic.

My interest in procurement awards started during the 1990s solely as a result of the Best Value regime. I wanted some sort of external validation to demonstrate that we were good at our job. I was a cynic being opportunistic.

It wasn't easy to tailor our entry to the award criteria, especially since there was a word count restriction but the discipline and effort paid off. We didn't win but we did get invited to the award ceremony and ended up with some sort of commendation. The real value came through the spin-offs. The profile within our organisation soared. The team's internal credibility soared. The espirit de corps soared. The team's confidence and pride it itself soared. Yes, it was a big dividend for the small investment in entering.

Something like a decade later, I was programme managing the National Programme for Third Sector Commissioning. I wanted some demonstrable evidence of how the public sector were embedding Third Sector Commissioning. The GO Awards were an obvious part of the strategy - sponsor, encourage entries, get really good case studies into the public domain, and, as icing on the cake, get the MInister to speak and make the awards. Yes, a big dividend for a comparatively trivial investment.

Surprisingly, last year I was invited to judge. I had the luxury of reading all the entries for the categories I was judging. Some great case studies, some not so good, and sadly some who just didn't seem to match the award criteria at all. It was an encouraging insight into the hidden world of procurement successes as opposed to the 'bad press' our community seems to be dogged by.

Public procurement is facing what to me appears unprecedented unfounded criticism at the present and we desperately need to get on top of that criticism with a strong marketing strategy before our reputation is completely eroded - the GO Awards provide a showcasing opportunity we urgently need.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Local government needs a marketing campaign to dispel 'lowest price wins' myth

In an instant tell me what Malcolm Walker, Chief Executive of Iceland and the National Pensioners Convention General Secretary agree on? Well, if you are a regular reader of this blog you are likely to recognise the connection is that both believe a culture of  'lowest price wins' dominates local government procurement.

Malcolm Walker has seized the horse meat initiative and successfully differentiated the Iceland brand from a perception of 'cheap' to one of a good value for money, good quality procurer - a remarkable achievement. Meanwhile local government is lambasted and respond by narrowly discussing the horse meat issues.

Let's face it, it is hardly surprising that local government is being perceived as 'we buy lowest', as that is completely in keeping with the message that the coalition government have presented - incompetent buying, massive spending cuts, etc.. Now that has come back to bite the hand of politicians who will radically need to reposition 'their stewardship of the public purse'.

But there is also a fundamental flaw in the perception, namely, that a culture of 'lowest price wins', in my experience, does not prevail in local government. Local government needs to get on the soapbox very quickly, just as Iceland have, and provide clear case study evidence of professional procurement as  not doing so will further reduce morale, confidence in political stewardship and credibility.

You know I just suspect I can see what will follow. We've had the nonsense talked by Sir Philip Green about public procurement commissioned by the government - what are the odds that within the next few weeks we have an inquiry into public sector food procurement led by Malcolm Walker?

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Learning from India's $750m helicopter procurement

It is sometimes useful to learn from international public procurement. We've looked at the Indian procurement of fighter jets in the past, but today provides another interesting opportunity. An opportunity for one simple lesson and something which may be transferable to the horsemeat saga. What also makes this story interesting is the sheer scale, $750m and the involvement of three countries, India, Italy and UK.

I'm not going to bore you with all the details as the key facts are easily found on the web, namely, big contract, suggestions of corruption in the award of the contract, and contract put on hold.

No, to me, what is much more interesting and provides the key lesson relates to the specification. If the informative Flightglobal is correct, the procurement process started in 2002. At that time the specification requirement for the helicopters to fly at 6,000m could only be met by one bidder. The Indian MOD however had the good sense to stop the procurement process and change the specification so that the operable height requirement was only 4,500m. This in turn meant others could bid.

I have long lost count of how many times I have seen specifications written in such a way that there is only one potential bidder. But I would not need very many fingers to count the occasions I have seen steps taken to establish if that single bid represented value for money - in other words ensuring that 'price is right' and forensically probing the justification for such a proprietary item. I can only assume the Indian MOD, in response to the first procurement round asked something to the effect of:
"Let's revisit this, on how many occasions would we require a helicopter to fly at 6,000m, do we need all the helicopters to fly at that height or just some, how much money could be saved and functional capability compromised if we reduced the flying height?"
That strikes me as a fairly reasonable set of questions to ask. Hold on though, why weren't those questions asked prior to going to the market the first time?

However, there is another piece for us to get our teeth into from the subsequent procurement process (the one currently on hold) and think review in the context of the horse meat fiasco which is currently seizing the UK.

The new helicopter procurement included an interesting integrity commitment to:
"take all measures necessary to prevent corrupt practices, unfair means and illegal activities during any stage of the bid or during any stage of the bid or during any pre-contract or post-contract stage."
Now, if such a clause had been inserted in all the food chain contracts which have been the discussion on horse meat, would we be faced with the current problem? I don't know but it is interesting to speculate.

P.S. 20 February 2013: All flight tests were held in the UK, in violation of all norms of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) that makes it mandatory for all trials to be held in India.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The value of blogging and academic writing

So much has changed in the few years it has taken us to become familiar with social media. For example, I can:
  • have a thought cross my mind, write a blog about it, get a picture to accompany it from the web, and publish within minutes;
  • learn from Google Analytics if anyone reads the blog and puzzle why something, which I think is important, has so few views; 
  • tweet a link to the blog and let people know the blog has been posted;
  • post the blog as an update on LinkedIn and signpost to it, aswell as gain feedback;
  • learn if anyone thinks the blog has any value through retweets, blog, and LinkedIn comments;
  • post slides relating to the blog on Slideshare and see if anyone views or downloads.
Now if I had tried to explain to my grandmother, who used to shout at the TV when 'Dixon of Dock Green' was on, thinking she was helping them find the criminal, that she would be able to use #tags to converse with TV programmes, I can only guess what her reaction may have been.

Yet, sometimes I can see similarities between my grandmother's 'converstations' with the television and the value of academic writing. I will return to the similarity later.

When I write a blog, as I have illustrated above, there is ideally something akin to a conversation taking place. I'm engaged in a conversation with you, and you can give me a response which indicates, in some way, how you feel about what I have just said.

If the blog stimulates you to think about an issue which you may not otherwise have done, to me, it has some value. Better still, if you find the lessons learnt, which I frequently suggest, of use, it has some value. But the blog is, more often than not, 'my opinion' and I have previously highlighted opinions may not be worth the value we give to them.

Now it is slightly different with academic writing.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Staggering from Burgergate to Zimmergate

Retailers buy on consumers behalf beef which is to be of a suitable quality. The retailers have a supply chain and rely on third parties to provide the beef. The quality is set out in a specification, and behind that there is an assumption of risk management and contract management. The beef turns out to be wrongly labelled and we have a national scandal. The 'Godfathers' of the mafia are cited as potentially at fault, then we discover it, as much as it may be attractive to export blame, the finger starts to point locally.  Most of us are aghast and the fear is our health may suffer. We give it a name 'Burgergate'.

But substitute some of the words: Social services buy on the needy's behalf personal care which is to be of a suitable quality. Social services have a supply chain and rely on third parties to provide the care. The quality is set out in a specification, and behind that there is an assumption of risk management and contract management. The personal care turns out to be wrongly labelled and we have a national scandal. Potentially your father and mother are the victims, the finger starts to point locally.  Most of us should be aghast and the fear is our health may suffer. That's what I'd call 'Zimmergate'.

What's worse Zimmergate, for want of a better description exists as the Care Quality Commission has now found. 26% failure to meet the quality standard, reluctance to complain, failure to listen to the families who tried to raise concerns. Of course this isn't the first time we have considered the dependency of the elderly on good procurement. Is it right we could it be more concerned about the content of 'cheap burgers' and call that a scandal in need of urgent attention?

Let's leave the last word to The National Pensioners Convention General Secretary, who seems to have some useful suggestions for public procurement:
"Local authorities have a responsibility to start commissioning services on the grounds of quality - rather than for the lowest price. Contracts should only be awarded to those who can guarantee that staff are properly trained and qualified to do the job - and the idea that services can be provided in blocks of 15 minutes at a time has got to stop."

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Trouble with Edinburgh procurement visibility

I'm sure you recognise that there's a responsibility on those looking after the public purse to demonstrate good stewardship. Does that apply with all money spent though?

I have come across a peculiarity when it comes to public bodies spending money which can be recharged back to individuals.

To help you grasp what may appear complex at first, some context is required. I apologise this may be a bit geeky, but try to bear with me. Just as important it may help you learn from the lessons of Edinburgh.

A council can serve a statutory improvement notice on a property owner and subsequently recharge the owner for any repairs carried out as a result of the owner's failure to carry out the repairs. Of course the owner can opt to carry out the work themselves, but sometimes the owner cannot be found in sufficient time and the council, therefore take on the role of agent, getting the work done and then pursuing the owner for the costs.

There are two potentially opposing pressures on the agent. One the need to get the work done as soon as possible to protect the property or neighbouring properties. The other the need to ensure that, acting on behalf of the owner (who may not be traceable), the 'price is right'. 

One way of trying to achieve those twin objectives is to put in place a framework agreement which can be drawn upon - not always as easy as it sounds. Of course not every council recognises the need to save the owner money or, if that money is not recovered, it is a cost incurred by the council and, as those un-recoupoed aggregated costs can up to a lot of dosh (in Edinburgh's case (£27m).   

I hope that sets some context. And so to the suggestions regarding Edinburgh reported today.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Credibility and procurement

I recently had the good fortune to attend a lecture by the Swedish Finance Minister, Anders Borg, at the LSE - you can access the transcript of his speech here. Perhaps you managed to catch him being interviewed on Newsnight. His ear-ring and pony-tail are not what you expect from a successful politician and economist - appearances are one thing.

Borg impressed. He spoke with authority, was charismatic and above all was credible. Indeed 'credibility' could have been the theme of his speech as it seemed to be weaved throughout his message. For example, the need for the market to view the national economic strategy as credible.

Credibility is central to anyone paying attention to you, your opinions and your plans. Lose credibility and you are in a very precarious place. One of the reasons I am sceptical about some of what I hear is the absence of credibility, for example, the sprochling* for a cause of the recent horse meat debacle. Nevertheless, think of the last time a supplier made a promise to you, let you down, then again, and then the defaulting supplier said: "we've it sorted, trust me".

The CPO needs credibility too. Those who engage, both internally and externally, with CPOs need to be convinced that the sustainable procurement policy will make a difference, the new procurement strategy will make a difference, the sourcing plans will make a difference, the new eProcurement solution will make a difference - I'm sure you recognise it. The CPO needs to be credible if they are to bring about change and bring key stakeholders with them.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

We just have no idea how horse meat got into your grub

The breaking news that tonight a crack SAS squad had rumbled a gang of leprechauns under control of little green men substituting horse meat for beef in middle-earth wasn't really news at all. Let's face it there is likely to be as much evidence of that, or alternatively that the horse meat incursion was predicted by Nostradamus to coincide with the Mayan calendar and proximity of an asteroid passing earth as the latest assertion:
"Organised criminal gangs operating internationally are SUSPECTED of playing a major role in the horsemeat scandal..'
Let's remember that there even seems to be confusion as to when the horse meat was first discovered - we were initially told it was identified before Christmas, yet yesterday it was within the last month. Did no one take any action after the initial test results came through?

What we need is honesty. Instead of saying 'may' we should be told 'we just don't know'. Instead of  saying there's no risk to health, we should just be told 'we've no idea what you've been eating or whether it could do you harm'. Instead of pointing the finger at the mafia, we should just be told this was a massive systemic failure - failure of regulators, failure of trading standards, failure of supply chain management, failure of exception reporting, failure to respond three months ago (at least),  the failure of us to protect you, ...  

Wouldn't it be more helpful if we just heard: 
"we're applying the best brains we have to this, we're doing our best to sort it out as quickly as we can, and we're going to make as sure as we can that you never have to be concerned about food safety again, and, yes, we are truly sorry we let you down".
Is it just possible that the only link with the mafia is that someone mentioned that quite a few contracts were involved? If that's the case the other hypothesis being considered appears to be 'gross incompetence'.

I wonder could omnishambles be awarded 'Word of the Year' this year too. 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

It's time for procurement policy outcome evaluations

I'm sure many of you followed the discussion on the evidence given by Colin Cram and Jon Hughes to the Public Administration Select Committee. We had a good critique, over a few Spendmatters' Blogs and the readers associated comments, then we had Colin's pieces in Public Leaders and Supply Management once again with associated comments. We need more discussion on how procurement is approached and more debate. But yet I feel there was a fundamental weakness in the whole discussion - it lacked any rigour and solid evidence.

There is an additional weakness though in relying on the wisdom of procurement's eminence grise to provide the right answers - while those in the procurement world can debate good practice, their wisdom is cloaked, in spite of the obvious disagreements, in 'the narrowness of the same school'. By way of contrast, we know that the Prime Minister takes advice from the philosopher Nassim Taleb. It is interesting when reading Chapter 12 of Taleb's 'Antifragile' that, had the philosopher been asked to comment on the best structural model for procurement delivery he could have been expected to have given a different view. Just to be clear, what I am saying is that, even though there is disagreement amongst some of the more influential procurement commentators, if we want to identify what is best, sometimes it is worth considering the views of those outside our world.      

One way of opening up to others views is through the use of social media. But as we make greater use of social media, and blogs in particular, for sharing thoughts on how to improve procurement we need to be cautious of taking opinions too seriously, regardless of the deference due, in the absence of evidence. I was surprised to discover that The Times differentiates between 'opinion' and 'reporting' through the use of ragged edges - we don't see that differentiation in most blogs. Opinions have a tendency to swing like pendulums. One day a particular view is fashionable and the next it's not.

A useful illustration of the need to be wary of opinions was provided in the second session of oral evidence provided to the same PASC. There we had the unexpected luxury of one of the witnesses, Kevin Craven (Chair of the CBI procurement sub-committee of the CBI PSSB, in answer to Question 55) stating "Generally the MoJ is seen as doing good work in the procurement area", yet on that very same day, MoJ procurement was being described as 'shambolic' by MPs in the same building - need I say more!

The situation isn't helped by

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Another death with procurement in the dock

What on earth can you say when people die and procurement are in the when the various suspects are assembled. It was just less than two weeks ago when a procurement failure was identified as a contributing factor in a young girl's death. Is death too serious an issue for a blog? Is it appropriate to comment while facts are still being assembled?

Well I feel compelled to comment on another death in the hope that some speedy lessons learnt may reduce the risk to others.

You can read some of the background on the BBC website here and here. I won't go dwell on the story but a few lessons occur to me based on what I have gleaned from the media reports:

  1. If you are providing a personal care service to the vulnerable, a risk worth considering could be, how do you ensure that individuals who personally deliver the service to the vulnerable, have the credentials? In the case in question it appears there may have been an issue of illegal workers and fraud. There are some similarities here with the Apple case when a third party was providing workers to a provider but the third party could not be relied upon to make sure the staff provided were appropriate
  2. If a provider is being relied upon to provide essential services, a risk worth considering may be, how can you quickly be alerted if the provider ceases to supply at short notice?
  3. Linked with #2, a risk worth considering may be, if you need to find an alternative source, almost instantly, how do quickly can you get the new service be put in place? In this case it appears that the UKBA raided the providers office, the service ceased and the council put in place replacement services the same day.
  4. If you need to migrate service to a new provider at short notice, a risk worth considering may be, how do you ensure that the transition takes place at no risk to the recipient?
  5. When you are providing a personal service, on which recipients are dependent upon, a risk worth considering may be, if there is a failure in provision of personal support, how will you know?
Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one minute that the council in question or indeed procurement or the commissioners are in the least bit culpable, I am merely highlighting some personal lessons learnt from this tragedy.

Monday, 4 February 2013

How public procurement can help UK manufacturing

I was recently asked for my suggestions on how UK public procurement could help the manufacturing industry. Here's what I said, I'd be interested in your views and am happy to pass any useful suggestions on:
  1. The public sector is thought of as a provider of services and frequently not recognised as a major procurer of the manufacturing sector. I suspect this may well be due to three factors: 
    • disaggregated approach to the market; 
    • they buy through agents; and  
    • when they are in the pubic eye, as a major spender, it is often for major infrastructure construction projects and service.
  2. The public sector, as a manufacturing buyer, could therefore be more clearly articulated as a strategic customer. This articulation could start with a pan-public sector spend analysis of what is bought and, in parallel, where it is bought? At the present I doubt if such an overview is available. 
  3. There needs to be a recognition that if the public sector chose to buy services, rather than deliver them internally, there is less direct manufacturing procurement. However, that does not mean the public sector cannot shape manufacturing, through prototypes, issue of 'bounty challenges' and better interfaces with R&D and strategists - effectively procurement innovation labs.
  4. The clarity of the spend analysis is required and, on that foundation, then a national manufacturing procurement strategy developed. It needs to be clear that multiple sourcing from SMEs will need to be present in stimulating on-going innovation and competition, while at the same time long-term massive (co-ordinated) contracts will be required, quite possibly staggered dual sourcing. Visualise revolutionising the design of one commonly bought manufactured item just because the public sector harnessed its purchasing power. (For example, it strikes me that virtually everyone who is tagged (very naughty boys and girls) is likely to carry a mobile phone - why can't we issue a manufacturing challenge with a bounty, to develop an integrated solution which is more effective, stops the visual kudos associated with tagging, can be used for those with sex offences too, and is largely paid for by the user - could require simultaneous finger print recognition & GPS)
  5. While single sourcing is in vogue, I don't think it is often linked with a robust risk management assessment and relative power assessment - that needs to change. I think staggered dual sourcing may work better in achieving mutual benefits.

Friday, 1 February 2013

We need an urgent 'COBR like' response to food procurement

I'm sure you have guessed what's coming, yes, another food procurement disappointment, this time relating to not just a failure to deliver Halal meat, but to make matters worse to discover in that within the Halal labeled food were found traces of pork. Not good. What do we do now? This is getting pretty serious.

One of my friends is a devout Muslim and I can understand his food vigilance - he places trust in those who prepare his food and confidence in their assurances.

My daughter has a serious peanut allergy. Since she was very young we have gone to great lengths to protect her from peanuts. Wherever she goes, her epi-pens have gone with her (I hope). We've spent years asking airlines to protect her from exposure from peanuts when she's on board (I'm sure you've heard the type of announcements which have caused her to blush). When we go out for meals we place trust in those who prepare her food and confidence in their assurances.

Globally, we have also been concerned with food security - "both physical and economic access to food that meets people's dietary needs as well as their food preferences".

A few years ago I was involved in the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative. It was a serious, cross-Whitehall strategy to help the UK economy. In all the meetings I attended I just cannot recall any discussion suggesting a lack of confidence in food standards or that what was procured would not be received to specification. Ironically, every meeting included a detailed review of risks to the Programme. UK food procurement has a significant contribution to make to the economy.

How things have changed. We now appear to be stepping into the abbess in terms for food procurement risk.

We all need to eat food, yes, prisoners and those with food allergies too. We all need to buy food to feed ourselves and our nearest and dearest. The horsemeat discussion was able to be side-tracked through the discussion of "at that price what do you expect?". We have now reached a different position - a public sector institutional food procurement failure.