We featured the procurement problems at the nuclear de-commissioning authority last year in some depth. A mis-handled procurement process led to unsuccessful bidders taking the Authority to court and winning their challenge, which has cost the British taxpayer some £100 million.
Now, the National Audit Office has published their investigation into the matter, and has come up with an illuminating report that covers both what we did know, and some new and also disturbing issues.
As well as the procurement failings, it is now clear that before the contract was terminated it was running way over budget.
- The buying organisation really needs to understand its own position, its own assets and estate, its current contracts, before it can engage suppliers successfully for major contracts. This was a major NDS failing; they did not know themselves what exactly the supplier needed to do. (That seems even more shocking when we are talking about nuclear-related assets!)
- There must be a clear view of the specification – what exactly it is that the buyer wants the supplier to do – in order to run a fair competition and then manage a successful contract delivery. There cannot be a “level playing field” for bidders if there isn’t a clear understanding of the scope of the work to be performed.
- If you set your own “rules” in the competitive process (and what led to the NDA problem was not EU or UK legislation, but the conditions they imposed themselves), then you must stick to them, or start the procurement again. You can’t just ignore them.
- The lack of a good audit trail in the evaluation and contracting process does not make it more likely that you will “get away with it” if matters do end up in court. There is emerging evidence that judges will instead look on this as an additional negative and perhaps even assume that you are hiding something!
One issue that gets in the way of improving public procurement is the length of key projects and the time taken for issues to come to the fore. That also makes it difficult to take action against those whose actions lead to this sort of cost to the taxpayer. We’re not vindictive by nature, but it feels like someone should take some sort of rap for this. But the key players all seem to have moved on or retired. For instance, it appears that the NDA didn’t even have a Commercial or Procurement director at the time this all happened – why ever not? Who made that decision?