Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Calderdale Meet the Buyer

More information about the Meet the Buyer event we are running on 21st November 2012.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The West Coast Mainline Debacle

The shambles over the awarding of the West Coast Mainline contract is the big public sector procurement story of the moment.

The story is being covered in a number of places - Peter Smith at Spend Matters has covered it a number of times, including providing links to the original tender (if you are interested enough).  Robert Peston over at the BBC has of course also commented.

Rather than rehash entirely, I will just make a few points.  Peter Smith has pointed out that there are 3 possibilities - first that the process was flawed, secondly that the correct process was not followed correctly, and finally that something changed somewhere through the process.  The current line is that it is the first problem, and that the fault lies with the civil servants who set up process.  Some of them are disputing that.

I think the first thing to say is that the problem in many people's eyes was the result, regardless of the process.  If the process had been flawed but awarded it to Virgin there would not have been this fuss.  People I know who use the service are happy with Virgin and concerned about changin - even if First are promising a better service.  We all know that people are very reluctant about change - even for the better (see Machiavelli).  This allowed Richard Branson to create the fuss which lead to the review which got us to the current situation.  I do not believe First group would have been able to achieve that.

If it is the wrong process, then we have to understand why.  There are suggestions that it was wrong assumptions about Risk - which is part of the process, not how it was applied.  It is a very long contract (15 years) and all assumptions about what will happen over the length of the contract are speculation ("It's difficult to make predictions - especially about the future" - Yogi Berra).  What will the oil price be in 2027? Which party will be in power?  Will we have superconducting electricity distribution?  Will we have self driving cars?  All of these could have impacts on both demand and delivery of train services.  So, it is tricky.

As to why we should compensate bidders for the cock up in the process - we want them to bid again in future, and the fault was ours (the public sector) not theirs.  EU procurement law allows them the potential recovery of the damage to their company resulting from the mistake, so they are due compensation.  The costs will in any case in some way be charged to the public purse - through higher fees if not a direct payment.

This one is going to rumble on and on.  Sadly there is a great risk it will be a political football rather than a learning opportunity. 

The one lesson I would like the government to take from this is that procurement is important, and needs to be supported to ensure value for money and efficiency.  It is not just a cost.

Robert Peston's blog at the BBC is here.
Spend Matters latest post on the matter is here

BTW the illustration is not a Virgin train but an old Russian train iirc.