What is the purpose of a Government procurement office? Silly question – to save money, of course. According to the home page of the UK Government Procurement Service, its mission is simple:
Savings for the Nation
Our role is to provide procurement savings for Government and the UK public sector, including Health, Local Government, Devolved Administration, Education and Not for Profit organisations.
Note the repetition of the word “savings” in both the title and the text above. The focus of procurement offices, in IP Draughts’ experience, is monetary. Yet as all good commercial managers and commercial lawyers know, the price is only one part of a negotiation. Value for money can mean getting a high-quality product or service at a higher price than for a comparable, medium-quality or low-quality product. Other factors such as brand reputation, user-friendliness, product reliability, service levels, and compatibility with other products, may also affect the market price.
Ah, but procurement is about much more than price, the procurement manager may cry. It is also about defining responsibilities and allocating risk, through suitable contract terms. And it is certainly true that the contracts prepared by Government and other procurement organisations tend to be weighty affairs with detailed provisions about performance, warranties, indemnities, financial penalties (however dressed up to make them legally enforceable), insurance obligations, termination rights, and so on. IP Draughts recalls negotiating a 350-page contract produced by the UK Ministry of Defence, which was full of these kinds of terms. This approach is not confined to the public sector. Some large commercial companies have procurement departments that produce lengthy and one-sided contractual documents.
Yet for all their training and professionalism (and some are very skilled at negotiating contracts), procurement managers have a limited perspective on the supply of goods and services. They cannot guarantee that, through their efforts, a supplier will provide the desired product or service. All they can do, ultimately, is point to a contract that requires the supplier to do so.
For some types of supply, this approach may be sufficient. If a supplier of bulk products – office chairs, say – doesn’t perform its obligations, the contract can be cancelled, penalties enforced, and a new contract placed with another, eager supplier at a price that reflects the size of the order. The consequences of failure are usually limited. In the worst case, some personal injury claims may be made for back injury due to faulty chair design, but this risk may be low and the liability contained.
With other types of supply, including some IP-related supplies, this kind of procurement approach is deeply flawed. In all procurements, before a supplier can be selected and contract terms negotiated, someone needs to decide upon a specification for the products or services, and on selection criteria for potential suppliers. In practice, the way these criteria are framed tends to favour large suppliers over small suppliers, but that is another story.
With complex procurements, these preliminary stages take on a much greater significance than they do for routine supplies. Defining clearly in advance what is required, finding a supplier whose capability and commitment you trust, setting a price mechanism that enables them to make a reasonable profit, and working closely with them to ensure that the project is managed and completed successfully: these factors may be critical, and the detailed contract terms irrelevant.
If any of these critical factors is absent, the contract is likely to collapse. This may result in adverse consequences that cannot be compensated by the application of financial penalties or other onerous contract terms, even assuming that the fault can be laid at the door of the supplier. Familiar examples from newspaper reports include:
- NHS Direct withdrawing from supplying the “111” non-emergency health telephone service because the price was too low for the work involved;
- The provision of language interpreters in the English courts, where Government switched to a single procurement contract with a large supplier and promptly lost more money than they saved, because interpreters didn’t turn up for trials and court hearings had to be rescheduled; a House of Commons committee concluded that the Government had not been an intelligent purchaser of services and the result was “chaos” in the court system
- numerous examples of expensive IT procurement contracts that failed, sometimes due to changing (or ill-thought-out) specifications or requirements
In IP Draughts’ experience, many IP-related contracts fall into this category, i.e. what is required is intelligent purchasing, and collaboration between purchaser and supplier, not onerous contract terms. Government departments sometimes pay lip service to this idea. IP Draughts recalls, during the negotiation of the 350-page contract referred to above, a civil servant telling him that the MOD took a “partnership approach” in its dealings with suppliers. IP Draughts bit his tongue to avoid saying what he really thought, which was that this was complete bollocks, as evidenced by the ridiculously one-sided, antagonistic, and patronising contract terms that they were discussing.
- Contracts to run academic training courses, eg for medical students
- Contracts for the provision of specialist technical services, eg research and consultancy, or the development of “state of the art” products
- Contracts for the provision of legal services
IP Draughts is not sure why Government procurement departments seem, increasingly, to be proposing very one-sided contract terms for these types of project. But they do seem to be doing so. Some recent contracts with the UK Department of Health have been particularly one-sided. He suspects it is a mixture of factors, including:
- increasing use of procurement departments, and political pressure to reduce costs
- a lack of discrimination between projects that suit onerous terms and those that don’t, combined with a general trend towards longer and more one-sided contracts
- it is easier for Government departments to manage the contract negotiation process than it is to manage the earlier stages of defining requirements, choosing good suppliers, etc. The former is a process that can be reduced to a measurable system; the latter is sometimes a very complex task that requires skills that are not always present in Government departments
Is this your experience or is IP Draughts being unfair on procurement departments?