Cabinet Office Buys Brexit Consulting – In a Really Strange Way

We’ve covered (e.g. here) the recent Crown Commercial Service (CCS) consultancy tender, which has proved controversial on a number of counts, principally its perceived unfriendliness to smaller firms. But we had another example recently of the procurement rules being stretched by the UK government – arguably, beyond breaking point – in the consulting area.

The Cabinet Office recently ran a call-off competition from the existing Crown Commercial Services Management Consultancy Framework (MCF) . Note that although CCS is part of Cabinet Office, this was central Cabinet Office, the policy-related core of the department, that was the owner of this process, although they used the CCS framework.

The competition was to find consulting firms to assist with Brexit-related advice, but it was the way in which the competition was run that raised eyebrows.

Firstly, the choice of “lot” was interesting. Cabinet Office chose Lot 5 of the MCF - “Health and Community”. Not a lot to do with Brexit, you might think, although when I mentioned this to a civil servant, they said (just about managing to retain a straight face), “well, it’s the health of the nation, isn’t it”?

You just can’t beat Cabinet Office for Comedy Gold!

The real reason for selecting that Lot seems to be that it has all the big consulting firms on it, and clearly they are the names that Ministers want to see when it comes to something like Brexit advice. McKinsey, EY, PWC etc all are already making millions from Brexit and that is only going to grow further, we suspect.

The other unusual aspect of the competition is that six firms were chosen via the competition. Now remember that this is already using a “lot” formed by an initial competition. But the second stage of using a framework in a compliant manner is awarding a contract via call-off - not appointing what looks suspiciously like setting up another framework.  “You can’t set up a framework from a framework” was something I remember being told years ago in my early days around public procurement.

The final issue is that the selection of the six firms appears to have been based in part at least (and not surprisingly) on their capability to provide Brexit-related advice. But there is no way that was the original purpose of the Lot, and those capabilities were not part of the original evaluation criteria when the Lot was first set up.

Procurement regulations are very clear here – you can’t use new evaluation criteria at the second stage (call-off) of the competition, you can only use those that applied initially, and of course the work and the evaluation has to relate to the subject matter of the original competition.

There is a good reason for this, illustrated perfectly in this case. Let’s imagine you are a small but incredibly expert consulting firm that knows more about Brexit trade issues than anyone else. Of course, you didn’t bid to get on the “health and community” Lot some years ago – it appeared to have nothing to do with Brexit. But now there is an opportunity to do the sort of work you are expert in – but you can’t bid for it because you are not on that Lot. It is manifestly unfair.

If buyers were allowed to use new evaluation criteria at call-off stage, and use the framework for work not originally stipulated, the whole basis of frameworks becomes corrupted.  I could let a framework for something every esoteric – castrating stray dogs maybe -  make sure my brother’s firm gets on it, then employ him for running all my council's IT services, which I will buy via a call-off from that framework.

We don’t expect there is anything “corrupt” in that sense here, and suspect it has been driven by three issues. Firstly, the desire to move quickly (i.e. don’t spend 9 months running a whole new OJEU process for firms with Brexit capability), then the fact that the MCF “strategic consulting” lots were delayed and the competition is still in progress, so another Lot had to be used, and finally the pressure from the top to make sure the “right” firms can be used.

But the process is legally extremely dodgy, to say the least. No-one will challenge, we suspect, but it is also another example of how the UK  government appears to be in thrall to the big consulting firms right now.

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Voices (4)

  1. Chris Mackenzie-Grieve:

    They could have argued special circumstances and time pressure to get a choice of what they needed. They could have used an accelerated process. This is the problem with locking things down in frameworks and being tied to stringent critiera. When you need a specialist for advice on something you have not considered before then you cannot use existing frameworks. Mind you begs the question, the Govenrment must have known a while ago that they would need specific Brexit advice and should have set up a famework for it. What was the Dept for exiting doing???

  2. Pat:

    Nice article Peter. Great example of how our procurement rules are tying everyone in knots. For procurement processes to work well they need to be fair, efficient, easy for both buyers and sellers to use, cost effective, and deliver great solutions. When the process has both buyers and sellers pressured to game the system…

    1. Anonymous:

      Sorry Pat, have to respectfully disagree with your statement “Great example of how our procurement rules are tying everyone in knots”. I don’t believe this case highlight flaws in procurement rules, it highlights a serious flaw in this cabinet office procurement.

      I think you’re being incredibly kind Peter by labelling it as “dodgy”, it sounds down right illegal and a flagrant breach of the PCRs. They could have at the very least come up with some tenuous link to the impact on the NHS and social care in general in an attempt to justify the decision of using that lot.

    2. bitter and twisted:

      For procurement processes to work the thing you are buying has to be worth buying.

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