Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Adapt (book review)

Tim Harford has written a number of excellent, easy read, economics books; possibly the most famous being The Undercover Economist.  I have a preference to Harford's style than the Freakonomics school.  It was against that background I ordered Adapt. I wouldn't describe it as an economics book, but I was not disappointed and would certainly recommend it. I would catalogue the book under 'business improvement philosophy' - is there such a library section?

I don't plan to provide a summary of the book as the sub-title provides as reasonable enough steer. However, an alternative precis could well be the misquote of Mao Zedong's, 'Let a thousand flowers bloom'. 

The key message to me is the need to encourage risk managed experimentation. I would like to see that practiced more within the procurement world. Accept that some experiments just won't work.  But some experiments will work and some will even delivery beyond our wildest expectations.  Equally some experiments may not deliver in the way we expected but may nevertheless yield desirable outcomes.  Nevertheless failure provides useful lessons to be learned. That's how we can deliver stepped change in cost reduction, quality improvement and social value. That's how we can deliver innovation in procurement. It's also how we can see improvement in strategic commissioning and public services delivery. The trick is to think of managed risk and the use of 'decoupling'.

A review isn't the place for more of Harford"s ideas, suffice to say that I think if you want to make improvements, you could do a lot worse than dip into your pocket and get a copy.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Procurement look Big in the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012

In the firing line of criticisms regarding penalising the Third Sector through the Budget's tax regime and criticism that the Big Society aspiration has been swallowed up by the austerity strategy, I would have would have had a fanfare announcement of the The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. But I suspect many of those who need to operationalise the Act have missed something which should be fundamental to public procurement's contribution.  I don't think I even noticed a reference in Supply Management; CIPS's oracle! Is the absence of that fanfare indicative of a lack of ownership or scepticism that its potential will be realised?

Is the Act, which gained Royal accent on 8 March 2012 although yet to become law, is in danger of going the same way as so many strategic initiatives and disappearing off the procurement radar?  So, for example, when I ask the average UK public procurement person about the impact of the Welling-being Powers, The Compact, Eight Principles of Good Commissioning and the Small Business Friendly Concordat, I see that blank stare which says: 'I know nothing, and have done nothing, about embedding those in procurement policy, strategy, practice and performance management' (If you want a copy of my research paper on this, just let me know).  We have also considered some of the hollow strategic commitments relating to sustainable procurement.

Let's try to ensure that the Social Value Act does not end up the same way but is seized by procurement professionals as an opportunity to reposition procurement strategically and also 'make a difference'.

The Act is so simple and concise my blog risks having a bigger word-count than the Act itself. So, in a nutshell what does the Act say?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Abu Qatada meets Public Contracts Regulations

"What" I hear you ask, "has an alleged Islamic extremist got remotely to do with public procurement?"

Well it's quite straightforward, the proposed deportation of Abu Qatada has been stalled as a result of a dispute over the calculation of the deadline for his appeal.  The European Court of Human Rights said the deadline was midnight on 17 April, while the Home Office say midnight on 16th.  The upshot being the Abu lodged an appeal on the 17th an hour within the ECHR deadline, while outside the Home Office deadline.  Now, while the legal arguments are considered and the calendar checked, there are lessons for public procurement.

Monday, 16 April 2012

TAC and the choice of fighter jets

We all know the theory of calculating Total Acquisition Costs but anyone in the real world also knows that when you get down to practice predicting future costs is a bit harder than the theory.

The latest saga in the fighter jet and aircraft carrier saga provides a good case study. Rather than the preferred option being 25% lower,  MOD are now faced with the cost of justifying an increased upfront cost of £1.8bn, as opposed to the previously predicted £400m.  That's quite a difference and I'm sure many of you ask, 'How could your calculations be so far out?'  Getting the predicted figures wrong is understandable but making the wrong choice somewhat harder to justify.

If you were asked to calculate TAC for a fighter jet you may well have done a comparison of the alternatives and really looked at running costs, maintenance costs, etc., but would you have included the additional costs of

Monday, 9 April 2012

Fake protection

I have been intrigued for some time on how someone can present themselves as something other than they are; a fake.  We recently had the entertaining case of the person who suggested they were a barrister but the judge recognised the contradiction of a barrister's wig with a solicitor's gown.  The culprit, unable to adequately defend themselves, is now serving a custodial sentence for impersonating a barrister. The strange thing is that case was almost a replica of a previous sham in 2010.

If you were going to pretend to be anyone, surely the daftest option would have been pretending to be a barrister and effectively trying to con your peers in the same courtroom.  Then we have the fake GP - would you trust your health to someone who had faked their qualifications? Clearly some have. Although what should have been a greater cause for alarm was how that particular fake actually ended up working on clinical guidance, without appropriate qualifications, and had successfully navigated his way through the NHS system by impersonation.

The role of expert witnesses, their calibre, validly and the relevance of qualifications in courts has also been called into question. To me, the key problem isn't the fake expert but the deference given to them. The expert is frequently held as beyond challenge, critique or questioning; why?

I don't recall the case of the fake 'procurement expert' but I have been surprised at some of those promoted by conference organisers as 'experts' and I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before we have some scandal associated with unquestioning deference to the expert. So in anticipation I have given some thought to the facades of the fake:

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

They just don't make trams the way they used to

While much of today's news was concerned with the contrast between last week's sun and this week's snow, I suspect that was of little concern to those at Blackpool beach. To be more specific those concerned with the procurement of Blackpool's new tram and the contrast between what should have happened and what did happen. Or, to put it mildly, the contract!

By way of explanation, let's provide some context.  Blackpool has the honour of having the country's oldest running tram - over 125 years.

Yesterday there was cause for celebration as the newly upgraded £100m tramway hit the tracks. VIPs were able to enjoy the ride.  A four-year upgrade, 11km of track, a new tram depot, and 16 computerised trams. So impressed was the Transport Minster, Norman Baker, that he said, "Blackpool's trams are absolutely on the right track". In a cruel twist those words just couldn't have been more misplaced because today, as the trams were 'open for business', the trams just weren't on the right track, in fact it wasn't on any track at all as sand had caused its derailment In true style it appears the service was then maintained for the remainder of today through the use of brushes and trowels!

Thankfully this didn't happen on April Fools day but I assume this is no laughing matter and some illumination is required in Blackpool over contractual liabilities.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Numbers that lie

Then Saturday's Times introduced an new twist to the ongoing investigation into the curious death of a GCHQ mathematical whizz kid.  Ironically the contractor analysing the DNA made a mistake in that "two numbers were put in the wrong way round" on a computer.  As a result somewhere in the region of 18 months investigation into his death were misdirected.

If nothing else these two examples highlight the need quality assurance when dealing with numbers - not just the calculations but the transposition. While the numbers may not have lied they were just the wrong numbers!  Yet as I observe procurement practice I rarely come across that checking even though I have seen mistakes in 'inputting the figures' and the calculations prior to inputting.

However, for a long time I have been concerned about the professions blind acceptance of evaluation matrices.  We appear to assume numbers introduce some form of objectivity while forgetting that many of those numbers are a completely subjective allocation.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

NHS procurement didn't consider wider environmental impact

You may recall that in 1992 a container holding 28,000 plastic toys, en route from China, went overboard. Since that time there have been sightings of the washed up 'ducks' all over the world. Indeed Donovan Hohn wrote a book entitled 'Moby-Duck' on the 'duck chaser' phenomena.

However, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's recent report, 'All washed up', has now highlighted that the true owners of the plastic toys are the NHS; the NHS are responsible for environmental costs incurred. The EAC investigation was concerned with the adverse environmental impact and the fact that a number of dead Cotton Tailed Seals had recently been washed up on Scottish shores. Each of the seals had died having choked on plastic toys.

The connection with the NHS procurement was only established during the seal post-mortems when it was discovered  that each of the plastic ducks were stamped 'Property of NHS'. Like me, I suspect you were unaware that a framework arrangement was in place for plastic toys and didn't give a second thought  to how toys, in general, appear in children's hospitals the length and breadth of the country.