Why did Department of Transport take such risks on the West Coast Rail procurement?

(When we last wrote about the West Coast Rail fiasco and the interim report from Sam Laidlaw, we got an excellent and perceptive comment from “Clark Kent”. Here’s a taste of it.

“… whilst the risk of success of a legal challenge is frequently well understood, the risk of that challenge materialising is more difficult to assess and is frequently taken less seriously by accountable officers. .. Unfortunately in the public sector, where the glare of publicity is that much more intense, the impact of the reputational risk of saying “stop” is often perceived as greater than chancing it on a risk of challenge that might not materialize…the culture, and the public/political/press response, does not and has never supported a climate which allows the admission of errors during the lifecycle… stopping means “delay” and “delay” is as bad as failing to deliver, but more immediate. Publicly stated deadlines are everything.

That inspired our latest Sir Humphrey story…)

Risk versus ignominy...

- Minister , good morning. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but I must have a serious discussion with you. You know our current competition for awarding franchises under the PSTL scheme?

Of course I do Humphrey, it's right at the top of my priority list!

- Well, I'm afraid I have just had a somewhat disturbing conversation with my Procurement Director. She tells me that there is a problem with the tender evaluation model that we have previously used, and postulated in our OJEU advertisement, and, on investigation, it may contain certain hypothetical variations from a standardised and fully statistically legitimate analysis giving due consideration of contingent factors and equitable comparators in terms of the full financial metrics which we require our bidders to submit.


- Our procurement process  doesn't work Minister. It is fundamentally broken.

Well sort it out at once, Humphrey!

- It is not as simple as that Minister. I am assured that it will take some time - probably 3 months, we estimate, to build, verify and communicate the new evaluation model to suppliers .And of course with the Cabinet Office restrictions on use of consultants we have to do all of that considerable work ourselves..

But we will have to announce that to everyone! We'll be delaying our key programme! We’ll look incompetent !

- Again. Minister. We’ll look incompetent again. But there is an alternative, Minister.


- We could put in place a - well, it is by no means a foolproof solution, more of a sticking plaster really, but it might be enough to convince our bidders that we know what we're doing, and allow us to proceed. However, I have to warn you Minister, that if a potential supplier were to challenge our process later on, perhaps when we award the contract, the probability is that we would lose the case.

And do you think they will challenge?

- I couldn't possibly say, Minister. Who are we to know the minds of our esteemed suppliers. Many of them are Americans!

Humphrey, this is most unsatisfactory. Between us, you know there is an imminent Cabinet re-shuffle? And you know I'm being tipped for promotion - maybe Transport, maybe even MOD!

- Minister, you have my sympathies. In fact, my name has also been mentioned recently in terms of preferment.

Cabinet Secretary, Humphrey?

- Oh no, Minister, not yet. But perhaps DWP or HMRC..

So let's get this straight. We can own up now, and look like idiots.

- Yes Minister.

Or we can carry on, take the risk, hope for the best, and we might be challenged - when?

- In around 6 months time, Minister. After the re-shuffle. And after my potential move...

In that case... I think we should carry on.

-  A wise decision Minister.

You think so Humphrey?

- Oh yes Minister...!

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Voices (3)

  1. Dave Orr:

    What about the Barnet Council mega outsource and Cornwall Council standing on the edge of a similar all-or-nothing cliff?

    Once these big outsourcing “transformation” projects are kicked off (usually built around a pre-decided “preferred option”) with great fanfare & aspiration, they have so much time, money and “face” invested in them, that they become unstoppable juggernauts.

    Barnet are simply ploughing on even though all other joint ventures before them have failed or significantly under-performed.

    So how will Barnet succeed where Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Liverpool, Somerset and Southampton have all failed before them? Statistically highly unlikely then.

    How do we make a “No Go” contract let decision “cool” or even simply an acceptable part of “normal” when projects are well into their life cycle?

  2. Clark Kent:

    Knowing Humphrey I’d have thought it’d be the French!

  3. Christine Morton:

    “Many of them are Americans!!”

    Oh dear Peter! LOL

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