This Procurement Needs Testing – Never Mind The Drivers …

In 2013 the Government via the Crown Commercial Service awarded a “single supplier framework contract” to learndirect for the supply of Computer-Based Testing Services across central government. The Department of Transport then awarded a contract to learndirect for running the Driving Theory Test, due to start in 2014. But Pearson, the incumbent supplier for that test, challenged and according to the Mirror, writing in 2014, “Pearson challenged the move and was allowed to keep the test until 2016. The bill for the mix-up is estimated at £20million. Legal bills alone have already cost taxpayers £880,000”. The Telegraph reported that this change was due to a “paperwork error” by officials in DfT.

In the meantime, Pearson tried to acquire learndirect’s e-assessment business, which would have included the driving test contract, but were rebuffed by the competition authorities, who thought (probably rightly) that such a move would reduce competition in this market.

But then in the past few weeks, it has been reported that the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), with input from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport, have concluded an exit from the learndirect contract for the provision of the UK Driving Theory Test, which was due to transfer from Pearson finally in September this year. The official statement is opaque to say the least.

“Since the award of the original contract in 2013, demand for the test has increased by over 50 per cent to 2.4m (2015/16), and is now forecast to reach 2.8m in 2017/18. Against that background, and because continuity of service is of primary importance, it has been decided that now is not the right time to transfer. Pearson VUE will therefore continue to provide the service for some time".

According to Sky News, “The DVSA declined to say why the contract with Learndirect had been cancelled, but a source close to the agency acknowledged that the company had been infuriated by the decision”.

Reports suggest that learndirect has been paid millions in compensation – but no-one is saying anything more. We suspect some diligent FOI questions might get to the bottom of this, and it certainly feels like something that should be exposed to a bit more public scrutiny – a quick NAO review perhaps?

It also leaves learndirect in a bit of an invidious position. That’s because the big question is whether the DVSA was truly concerned about learndirect’s ability to deliver the contract, and the statement could be interpreted to suggest learndirect is considered incapable of handling the higher volume of tests. That is not exactly a vote of confidence in the firm. But if the real reason is a dodgy procurement process leading to Pearson threatening further action, then that is a different position altogether.

Two other points to note. You can’t just keep extending public contracts under the EU and UK regulations, unless there are exceptional circumstances, so this decision would we suggest be open to challenge by any other firms operating in this market (if indeed there are any!) There will be another procurement process at some stage – but in the meantime, the deal with Pearson is also more expensive than that with learndirect would have been, according to reports.

And finally, it shows the dangers of over-ambitious “single supplier frameworks”. It was the original strategy to give one firm the right to all computer-based testing contracts across government that led to this issue in the first place. That was a pretty broad and substantial scope of work for a single supplier; in retrospect, a framework with a handful of suppliers, allowing for further “mini-competitions” for specific work, may well have been a better move.

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