WTF Buyers
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WTF Buyers

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: The most incompetent or corrupt procurement yet!

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office showcases probably the most incompetent procurement practise yet. UK Government’s Digital Marketplace is obviously collapsing as a platform for good procurement. But check this doozie out. A masterclass in how not to do it and crucially, how the Public Procurement Review Service (PPRS) fails to handle this at all!

Tender: FCO Services, Agile Innovation and Transformation
Summary of the work: FCO Services have identified the need to engage with an “agile partner” to support us in our ongoing development and transformation, enhancing the continued drive to deliver value through the work we do with other Government departments.
Contract Duration: 1 year + 2 x 6 months ext
Contact Value: (none)
Awarded Value: £750,000

Scoring Questions
This had to be by far, the worst set of procurement questions ever to have graced to pages of the Digital Marketplace. It literally left you under no doubt that the questions were written by catastrophic idiots! Closed questions which didn’t require any explanation, were submitted by the buyer.

Essential questions for tender.

PPRS Engagement: Having initially seen the above, I submitted a complaint to PPRS. We were given a number and sure enough, it just went silent. Disappeared completely! No response from PPRS. The first we heard of it was the rejection email from the buyer.

Actual feedback received from the FCO on our bid. Noting that this should have scored all questions, not just one. So it was clear that this was a corrupt procurement.

The response to this is pretty simple. This is an illegal procurement. As soon as it happened, it was clear that the buyer had corrupted the process but then tried to play dumb.

Yes, this genuinely as my response. After all, there is no buying situation where the buyer could validly shortlist on this. In addition, PPRS had not responded with their reasoning. The net result, is the contract continued.

Email Trail

After that, the buyer response starts to go into the surreal. Bringing in CCS. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know we’d established that they don’t have an understanding of procurement nor do PPRS, have mandatory power to change anything or compel buyers to learn how to buy. So most of the time, they just get ignored. Leaving it to suppliers to start action.

Now, our response to that was quite blunt. Yet, constructive. The rational is in the email, which I copy here.

Now, I don’t understand what you think is right about the questions you asked for shortlisting.

You are correct that it allows 100 words. However, the questions you asked are closed questions. Unsuitable for presenting case studies. In such questions, they’re unnecessary.

For example, “What is your availability to start within the timeframe required?” this question is already asked in the previous step on the Digital Marketplace. So is unnecessary in any event, but crucially, makes reference to the time frame in the previous question. We can start at the beginning of the timeframe.

The second question, “Do you have Agile practitioners available to start within the timeframe?” again, another yes or no answer. Closed question. You didn’t ask who they were, or the skills, or experience of the staff. Suppliers are required to answer questions as-is. Framing the question differently, would have yielded a fuller response. As we are members of the Agile Alliance and signatories to the Agile manifesto.

The third question “Do you hold Cyber Essentials or ISO27001?” is yet another closed question. We could have answered “both”, for both or named one of each. We cannot upload material through the [Digital Marketplace] and have been advised by XXXX of CCS, MYYYY’s colleague, that links and verifiable evidence is not allowed and crucially for your shortlisting, the ‘or’ question in a mandatory shortlisting question, means that you could not mark up, for those who have both or mark down for those that have only one. As the effect is to create a scale on an essential criteria, in which you have to score at least 2 for. So 0, 2 (one of the certificates) or 3 (for both). There is no ‘1’.

The next question is “Suppliers must provide all assumptions, caveats and exclusions in their response” . That’s a statement, not a question. It isn’t “What assumptions have you made in answering the above?”

Plus, how could one evidence assumptions on closed questions? [There is no need for assumptions on closed questions] For all we know, as suppliers, this reads as a requirement for some future written submission, which is being stated here [where suppliers do not have the opportunity to submit evidence at the shortlisting stage]. With the closed question nature of what was asked, there is no requirement to use assumptions. If you think about it, what assumptions could there be and how could they be evidenced in the above questions?

A [ISO27001] certificate is a real, verifiable item. No assumptions required.

A start date is set by the buyer. No assumption required.

Agile practitioners are our workers. No assumptions required.

See what I mean? The shortlisting process here was entirely defective. Obviously, CCS didn’t get round to investigating this before award. [so it] might fall on us to start action. It’s an easy win, but tbh we didn’t expend that much effort curating answer. So I’m willing to let it go in the interests of improving your buying process.

If it’s any consolation, while this is by far the worst example of a procurement we’ve seen on the DOS2 and DOS3, it is far from unique. We are conscious that CCS are slow to change, and are themselves struggling [to identify] a workable process [from this], which is systemically broken.

This is meant more constructively than it sounds and also more constructively than the proverbial grief I give CCS. Who really should know better :)

If you want to discuss this in more detail, I’m happy to help out. If you were to ask our advice, it’s simply not to use the Digital Marketplace at all until they fix the buying process. We won’t be engaging to fix it for DOS4 as they are likely to ask the very same exploitative suppliers to shape the process. Hence, at this stage, the process would never be fixed. Especially as the process is currently being exploited. Case studies within this article.

The fastest way is probably my mobile. As I’m on the road today.


I look forward to hearing from you.

Of course, there was no attempt to call nor improve. Albeit this did receive a response, which again was unsatisfactory. As it is not the supplier’s responsibility to train the buyer in how to use the digital marketplace and as we’ve seen, reporting it to PPRS yields absolutely no change, nor value. As they simply can’t enforce it. Their advice being “put in a legal challenge” which for SME’s is a chronic waste of time and money.

The response back from the category manager. Obviously having absolutely no idea how the Digital Marketplace works.

So that response put the FCO on to our blacklist. They join on the IPO, Oxford City Council and East Anglia LEP as the dumbest buyers in the UK. But uniquely, they go in straight at the bottom of the league table!

It is not a supplier’s responsibility to teach buyers how to do their job.

In any event, buyer paid out a £750,000 contract to FLUXX Limited though corrupt procurement process. The shortlisting replaces much of the PQQ stage of OJEU. These have the following thresholds.

The net result is the shortlisting stage is ripe for corruption and bypassing PQQ stages in contracts.

For the record £750,000 is a very round number for only 1 year. Plus a lot of cash for only one year! There is the suspicion of a conflict of interest here, but that, and any future criminal investigation, is for another day.

The final contract award through the corrupted process

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Ethar Alali

EA, Stats, Math & Code into a fizz of a biz or two. Founder: Automedi & Axelisys. Proud Manc. Citizen of the World. I’ve been busy