icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an
ongoing web column   by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

Transparency is the new privacy. Part 2: Accountability

About public procurement, policies and information security

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2015). Transparency is the new privacy. Part 2: Accountability. About public procurement, policies and information security. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 4.7 (July).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2015). Transparency is the new privacy. Part 2: Accountability. About public procurement, policies and information security. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 4.7 (July).

I removed the original attachments published here in 2015 because after several years they are not relevant anymore and risk to be improperly indexed by search engines. The description of the events and facts remains detailed enough to document them.

London, 24th July 2015 - If trust, as discussed in the previous article, is a necessary pre-requisite to engage in many human interactions, accountability is what makes all sorts of disputes, competitions and conflicts that may often arise in such processes hopefully absent or at least bearable and manageable.

From an information management point of view, trust and accountability cannot exist without each other. They are the two sides of the same coin we use to design and build up reliable and efficient communication processes. We trust that everybody involved in a project or activity is keen on sharing common rules that we would not sacrifice for the sake of an instant gratification, for personal interest or to give space to free riders' interests in corrupted trades.

And yet, the rules can be mangled and accountability denied with all sorts of excuses: this has always been a matter of literature, theology, philosophy, justice and social sciences ruminations more than life, cricket or procurement. Until the digital revolution came in, bringing another possible level of mistiness pertaining language, narratives and how do we communicate about the way we communicate in an open society. What are we really talking about when we talk about corporate and individual responsibility and accountability? Rules, behaviours or outcomes?

Anyway, I leave to philosophers to comment the wider implications of the digital revolution in terms of cognitive skills, education or politics. What I want to talk about here is the level of transparency needed (and the assurance criteria needed) to ensure that things in public procurement are made accountable.

The MoJ opportunity

This was an ITT for a feasibility study aimed at Understanding civil court users through a Research among civil court claimants and defendants. It was issued by the Minister of Justice. The scope of the contract fell into the consolidated field of outsourced socio-economic, organisational and marketing studies. So, I decided that it would be worthwhile to know more about it and possibly go for it.

The ITT notice was published on the 24th June 2014 via the Contracts Finder repository and structured in two trunks, suggesting the buyer could choose two different providers, one for each part of the study. I decided to see if was not the case to prepare an offer for the smaller of the two parts, called qualitative research.

In fact, it seemed to me I could make a very good proposal, not only because of the confidence I had in my skills and abilities to deal with the technicalities of the commissioned tasks, but also because of my personal experience of the British legal system as a litigant in person (I was embroiled in a property lawsuit for missed conveyance in 2011-2013 in North London, and my thorough awareness of a number of policies and organisational issues arising from the recent reform of the civil service and the digital by default plans could add more sound understanding... to the Understanding scope of the call).

The buyer's organisation was said to be the central procurement office at the Ministry of Justice identified as HMCTS / Estates / Corporate Services, an office that might have been in the process of being reorganised. The study was commissioned by a staff function identified as Ministry of Justice Analytical Services (MoJ-AS). I did not think that I should verify the authenticity and reliability of the buyer credentials nor that there was anything particularly suspicious with the fact that a subsidiary (HMCTS) was managing businesses on behalf of a staff function responding to the head office. Above all, my level of access to data on Civil Service matters was not sufficient to be sure of any assessment of their actual structure. And to cut out all my perplexities on the point, it is quite common practice in project management that projects are managed through the greatest variety of teams, resources and organisational alchemies, in the most suitable and efficient ways for the time being and the scope of the sponsors.

It took me just a couple of hours overall to express my interest for the ITT and register through the procurement platform, familiarising with the specification, as downloaded the 3rd of July from the Contract Finder database. I then confirmed my decision to bid for just the second part of the contract, following the instructions I was given.

Conversely, reading the whole documentation and preparing my offer was a very time consuming job. It required me not less than ten days overall to study and to understand the conclusions of previous investigations, to analyse all the known issues and obstacles and put together the various bits and pieces of previous interventions. There was a huge pack of documents to read, including the MoJ general Terms and Conditions for the supply of goods and services (over 20 pages) and the supplier Guide presentation (65 slides). And there were also evident gross contradictions and inaccuracies within the same specification document (19 pages) that required particular attention: these were explained by the buyer representative I contacted as obvious and inevitable pitfalls I should take as they were, because the documents had been prepared by different people at different stages. I was told I was evidently new to these calls and exercise and could not easily get to the point! What a warm cognitive welcome to errors-land!

All right. I have no problem to wear the shoes of the new kid on the blocks after all. However, the inaccuracies I found in the documents reached a boiling point when the same specification, between the 3rd and the 7th July, disappeared from the Contracts Finder database, after I had made my enquiry. So, after all, errors-land liked the potential contractors-chickens feedback after all!

Since I was concentrating on my own creative process I decided I would not give to such detail too much importance, allowing to distract me from my main goal. In fact, the requirement was available through the buyer procurement portal in a apparently identical version, though it seemed at first the file was either different or had been edited (in fact, the file size has changed) compared to the version I had downloaded on the 2nd July. That was possibly because it had been opened and saved or exchanged by different people through different computers or networks (different IT systems can be used within the same distributed organisation after all) and there was no apparent evidence of file tampering or corruption as far as I could say relying on my modest tools.

I spent most of my time in the first two weeks of July 2014 to prepare my proposal (here is in the submitted version), to restructure the problems that I would address managing the second part of the study, so that I could realistically manage it within the given timeframe and budget, to immerse myself into the peculiarities of the data and the workflows and documents that I would analyse and do some preliminary investigations about MoJ statistics, publications and organisational issues.

Following the instructions for Q&A, I sent in appreciative questions about the data I should use within the study, asking confirmation about the fact that the only published information about civil cases seemed to be from a publication, "Judicial and Court Statistics", the latest edition of which had been released in 2011 and did not offer great quantitative details about the defendants' profiles and behaviours at all.

A certain Tillie Paul, Statistician at the Justice Data Lab, replied the day after just to say that my questions were forwarded to the Civil, Administrative and Family Statistics Team. This in turn replied only at the beginning of August, well beyond the ITT deadline of 15 July - I will comment the message below.

Such considerations about the statistics and the internal data available for the study were among the papers, official documents and datasets I had to access and digest in order to elaborate and write my proposal. The sources included also 151 pages of a previous study, made available as Annex and in a draft final report version, the Ministry of Justice had commissioned in 2013-2014 to TNS BMRB (called an independent research organisation, this is actually a private company, subsidiary of the WPP group). The final recommendation of the TNS BMRB study was to undertake a postal survey among civil and private family court users, adopting methodologies that are quite common for consumer market research but, in my opinion, are unlikely to be workable and reliable in order to represent and study the reality of court claimants and defendants.

According to other sources, in 2014 a certain Paul Harris, Deputy Director of Civil and Family at HMCTS, had decided to go ahead with the "postal survey" among civil courts claimants and defendants. If that was true, the current ITT could be considered completely unnecessary under his own directions or, even worse, a pantomime formally necessary just to initiate the commissioning of a new study to the usual supplier under revised internal rules and by laws.

The authoritative team that had sold the idea of the postal survey in 2013-2014 (idea that, as I said, I found in many respects aberrant), included Caroline Bryson and Susan Purdon from Bryson Purdon Social Research, Becky Hamlyn, Emma Coleman and Emily Dryer-Beers from TNS BMRB, Mark Sefton, Independent researcher, Joan Hunt, from Cardiff Law School, Jo Miles from University of Cambridge. I tried to contact all these individuals and speak with them, unsuccessfully. I honestly thought at first that I might have misunderstood something, that it was not serious, not possible, for the Minister of Justice to spend money to investigate how to make a market survey to understand more their own customers, and secondly it would be completely nonsense and abuse of public process to proceed with the procurement exercise in case the decision to commission a further study to TNS BMRB had gone ahead all the same. I wanted to verify with real people my concerns but this was not possible.

On the website of TNS BMRB I found a statement confirming that in early 2013, BPSR and TNS BMRB were commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to assess the feasibility of conducting robust and representative surveys of civil and family court users, in order to provide data on users’ pathways, experiences and outcomes. BPSR led on the feasibility stage, assessing options for sampling frames and modes. TNS BMRB has piloted different methodologies for a survey of civil court users in order to assess their viability. The consortium will report their results to the MoJ in Spring 2014.

Spaces for campaigns, libel and slander?

The TNS BMRB feasibility study annex to the specification of the ITT also mentioned a certain Alison Walker. I noticed it only the day before the ITT deadline, when I was ready to submit the proposal and I was just reviewing all the instructions and pieces of the puzzle. The name urgently rang a bell!

Suddenly, I saw in the procurement opportunity the spectre or the shadow of an infinite libel I had been targeted with by fellows British Library employees and other librarians former clients and colleagues of mine, very active at international level. That libel had sprung through social media following my immigration from Italy in 2008-2009, namely in two precise circumstances that coincided with two faked job interviews I went through at the British Library in February and in August 2009.

Was this Alison Walker the same Alison Walker who pretended to be a recruiter officer for actually non existing roles of e-Learning manager and Copyright Assurance Officer in 2009 while carrying on "innovative" market research surveys? Did she leave the British Library for the WPP's subsidiary or for another organisation within the Civil Service? Had she been able to access my personal data stored within the MoJ system in connection with my property lawsuit, after the publicity about my missed conveyance in South Hampstead in 2011-2012 (I myself talked about the "7ncc case" on social media)?

In sum, a very complicated and intertwined number of facts and details bombarded my attention and my feelings in the 24 hours before the ITT deadline. I saw this procurement opportunity could be not only a closed shop but also the continuation of a targeted abusive exploitation of my time and energy, another fake exercise designed in order to obtain valuable data and opinions from me as a free service.

The deadline day I had a terrible headache. Was this because I wanted to avoid what cognitive scientists call sunk costs? I did not feel I should change my agenda and abandon the contest, in spite of the above analysis and rationale because I had so carefully planned to send my offer and to compete for the contract I was very in demand of.

A la guerre comme a la guerre

I followed the instructions and submitted my proposal through the procurement platform. I felt this was the right thing to do in any case, even if it looked like the whole ITT operation, specifications and procedure, were designed around me as a sort of special personalised test, because I would record the incident as information for my records and I would not repeat the experience if I had the confirmation that was a fake.

Few days after, an accelerated reality check had already taken place in my mind. The interest for the ITT was already blurring.

For almost eight years, under different hats and titles, I had been producing an entire portfolio of ideas, responses to consultations, proposals, applications and so on and so forth that my fellow librarians, geeks and communication experts, particularly active in various branches of the Civil Service, in Parliament, in Government, in libraries and all throughout the media sector, kept on monitoring, spying, copying, gossiping and sharing and, most of the times, grossly misunderstood from any point of view, trivialising ideas and frameworks of understanding, moving the goalposts. And there had been very few chances to actually collaborate and work together.

Why did they choose to treat me in such a way? Had I entered the Country as a refugee? Was I trafficked to investigate and to document what might have been a long trail of exchanges of favours between British and Italian librarians and civil servants that could be traced back to Panizzi (the Italian founder of the British Library) or even earlier ... to... Giuseppe Mazzini, the father of the XX Century Italy as a Nation?

Did Italian lawyers mismanaged my identity and personal details, putting my name in the wrong lists, shared with the Foreign Office or with the UK Trade & Investment Offices, in order to prevent me from being tortured as a witness in any of the Berlusconi's processes? As a former librarian and information officer employed by Berlusconi's early 1990s lobbying and strategic intelligence company, Fininvest Comunicazioni, I obviously received some unwanted, totally fabricated and unsubstantiated attention from his political stakeholders even if I was never involved in any actual public relation, legal or political project or activity. What a colossal prank that might have been! for the five years I was employed by Fininvest I actually played a quite dull role, almost totally disconnected and independent from its financial and political operations, until I left it to start my own business. What other reason, I was not aware of, could transform me in a bargaining case for international trades and national mockeries?

Never mind. I decided to put my mind at rest and go ahead as I had planned.

In fact, besides any of my personal objective circumstances and intimate ruminations, the ITT was a possibility to get a contract - assuming that there was a real budget to compete for - or to understand more about the MoJ procurement process in any case, even if it was a prank or in case of failure.

On the 4th August, after the deadline passed - oh, what a timely performance! - the questions I had asked on the 10th of July were answered via email by a certain Alison Colquhoun, Civil and Administrative Justice Statistics Analytical Services. The message contained a substantial confirmation that all the methodological points I had made within my proposal were pertinent, appropriate and possibly very endorsable. However, the text showed off an unnecessary self-deprecating attitude that I guess was meant to motivate me to continue a conversation (as I would possibly wishing to have my proposal favourably considered or demonstrate an expertise at that stage of the process). The grammar and the style of the message seemed to me showing a clearly dysfunctional approach, with the bullying intentions of the whole exercise transpiring amid the nonsense of its factual meaning.

I received another pretty much unnecessary email, sent through the procurement platform, on the 7th August. Ah, ah! was that a signal that should be seen and heard by somebody else that was supposed to be spying either the buyer or my own mailbox or both? The message had in the subject the phrase 'Outcome of tender exercise' and just said in the text: Please be aware that this tender is still under evaluation. Notification of the outcome will be issued next week.

A tough nut to crack

All right. The following phone conversations and email messages I exchanged in August 2014 with a certain Belinda Aleagha and then with a Fiona Burton about the outcome of the ITT showed the extent of the appalling poor attitude on the side of the buyer even further.

On the 15th August, since I had not received any new notification clarifying or following up the previous ones, I wrote to Belinda Aleagha asking if they had reached a decision.

I solicited a feedback even in case of negative outcome, because I said I was considering the possibility to use the proposal for my own publicity: in fact, at that point, I was really sorry for my document not to be heard, because it contained in my opinion very valuable policy advice that should be debated and for which I genuinely felt my commitment and my work should be paid or at least credited. In this respect it is true the fake exercise could give my expertise, in any case, the opportunity of becoming visible, although within a context that resembled more a cage than a market niche open to other buyers in search of procurement opportunities.

This time I decided to mirror the buyer communication so that I could force a change of attitude and tone: I put forward a mouse trap to see if I could eventually get the whole picture of what was ongoing behind doors. So, the subject of my email was outcome of Tender Exercise wanted.

Bingo. No answer arrived this time. They might had got a vibe?

On Monday the 18th August 2014 I phoned Ms Aleagha. A colleague, Fiona Barton, picked up the phone to say she was on annual leave and there was no decision yet about the ITT. The tone was of a person who speaks with pretence of authority and in rush, failing to conceal something of a resentment or disappointment in spite of wanting to show off good manners. She explained the delay was because many stakeholders were still on holiday, but she ensured I could expect the outcome in the following coming week.

With no consistency at all, as somebody had just had a jerk reaction and wished to stop all the mess at once, a couple of hours later, the same day, a letter arrived in my mailbox. Sent out once again through the procurement platform and not by a specific pearson, it was attached to an empty email message. The file name of the letter said it all: MoJ Letter - ODA - outcome - award to TNS BMRB.

As soon as I read it, I wrote back asking to explain the surprising result and letting me know how many offers were received for part 1 and for part 2 of the ITT 4015-2. And how could I access the document of the proposal sent in by the winner? I stated quite clearly that the score I was awarded (zero, on any of the assessment criteria!) was quite odd and weird and needed an explanation.

It seemed my proposal was the only one they had actually received, besides the obvious offer of the former contractor that wanted to carry on the study they themselves had recommended an year earlier. I reinstated the fact that my proposal contained very relevant methodological, technical and practical ideas, well supported by existing legal and social research literature in respect of the same ITT specification. It was just the expression of a scream for being treated in a way I believe is unacceptable under any standard of public procurement policies.

I did not receive any answer at all.

I sent the request a second time, forwarding my message, on the 26th August 2014. This time Belinda Aleagha replied, showing off the complete absence (or pretending to ignore the obligations) of awareness in respects of the publication of data related to the awarded contracts. She then tried to masquerade such posture saying the winner contract would be published in a redacted version and would be accessible through the Contracts Finder database (here is the thread of the email conversation).

On the 27th August, I sent to the buyer another request to know if they had any complaint procedure in place.

The answer arrived in just few hours showing off again the bullying and targeted prerogative of the entire exercise:

My question: Do you happen to have a complaints procedure at MoJ Procurement?
Answer from Fiona Barton: Could you please advise the nature of your complaint and I will be able to advise who this is best directed to?

On the 28th I forwarded the same request in a more elaborated version to the office that should have responsibility on compliance and governance according to some guidance I had found on the Gov.uk website.

The email address to be used this time was on another domain, hmps.gsi.gov.uk. The reply came straight away confirming awareness of the problem but no policy at all, and no real intention to take any initiative either.

On the contrary, the anonymous officer - writing from the mailbox procurement.compliance@hmps.gsi.gov.uk - seemed colluding or indulging in a passive mood, as he or she was interested in the possibility I myself could escalate the issue, making a formal complaint.

On the 23rd September 2014, Belinda Aleagha sent a new message to show off the sign of a 'climate change'. Writing as Procurement Group Programme from another subdomain (PGProgramme.Office@noms.gsi.gov.uk) with subject Response to your request: ITT4015-2-Professional services-N-RFP the buyers wanted me to know this time that it was not true that a contract was awarded at all! Should I be satisfied then?

The message said:
Further to your email of 22 September, I apologise for the delay in responding. However, as advised in previous correspondence, the contract award for this project has not yet been finalised. The procurement was undertaken by the Ministry of Justice Commercial and Contracts Management Directorate on behalf of Analytical Services in compliance with the Contract Regulations 2006. I trust this information provides you with the clarification requested.
Kind regards Belinda Aleagha
Procurement Category Officer
Commercial and Category Management Directorate, Ministry of Justice, Harcourt House, Chancellor Court, 21 The Calls, Leeds LS2 7EH
Tel: 0113 202 1047

What had happened in the meantime to halt the contract with the alleged winner or to change the way in which the buyer was managing the information about the whole ITT and the way in which they were communicating with me?

I do not really know but the following evidence suggests that a tension to cover up developed, together with further attempts to exploit my name and my own communication in an internal feud between senior civil servants and their youngest counterparts working (or wannabe baby quangos, temporarily let down by their contracted agencies?) for the Government Digital Services, the digital by default creature invented by Martha Lane-Fox and former Minister for Cabinet Office Gabriel Maude.

Did they try to elevate their exercise, exploiting my candour and availability once again, this time around with the apparent purpose of giving ethical justifications for the digital transformation endeavours?

Whistleblowing through FOI requests

In fact, in the meantime, the documents related to the ITT had disappeared completely from the Contracts Finder website. And I had decided to submit a FOI request to know the names of the directors that had approved such ITT and should be considered accountable for it and why the documents from the Contracts Finder database had been removed. What an extraordinary opportunity for making the case, once again, for open data and shared data although through an absolutely useless and abusive process!

The FOI request was very likely interpreted by the other side as a challenge that could have an impact within the organisation. I felt their attitude - opaque, bullying, dismissal - did not actually change. It seemed instead they were just aiming, again, at executing a script, the only rationale of which was to make visible some inefficiencies and wrongdoing by way of inducing wounded, losing, negative emotions for which nobody would be ever considered accountable or responsibile. The process could go on again again and again, undetected or immune from any sanction at all, almost certainly nobody would be willing to speak out about unfortunate incidents or errors in managing or awarding small procurement contracts but for giving the exercises more publicity.

It seemed the absence of empathy, professionalism and transparency at the core of a fundamentally patronising when not bullying internal culture or generalised attitude was considered part of a self-reinforced and self-gratification pattern: they were trying to say to themselves they had nothing to fear or be intimidated by accidental whistleblowers because they will acting within their rules and in any case they will get away with any wrongdoing.

I genuinely asked for some help to data protection experts, through a mailing list in order to interpret the communication I received in response to the FOI request. I pasted the feedback I received and made it public through an update to the FOI request on the 24th November [later on in 2018 I required all the documents shared online to be removed to prevent further exploitations of my personal data by third parties in connection with Civil Service's procurement or recruitment activities].

A FOI review?

On the 10th and 11th November 2014, articles published in the Financial Times informed that the media buying division of WPP had lost in the High Court a legal attempt to stop the UK government moving its £100m-per-year media-buying account to Carat, agency owned by rival Dentsu Aegis.

A final response to my FOI request arrived via email but it was not published through the What do they know website, that I found very, very sad.

I received it on the 22nd December 2014 from a certain John Phynn.

The letter Moj IR 94612 - FOI internal review disclosed a level of institutional quarrel or misrepresentation that seems to me unacceptable from the perspective of the public purse as well as from my own one, a micro business owner that just wanted to get work contracts and tried to get one through public procurement opportunities, by default opened to all.

No matter if the contents, the names and the facts are true or false, the symbolism and the punctuation of the communication in response to my FOI request disclosed instead a desperately farcical and self-justifying attempt to abuse of a public process, whilst the relevant contracts are agreed and kept secret behind doors, in spite of all the bells and whistles about open data and transparency.

"Actors" recruited and often underpaid by agencies controlled by big financial and media groups, like WPP, are impersonating all sorts of customer services and civil servants working in dozens of departments from the MoD and MoJ to the Home Office, for the sake of our freedom of being bamboozled or our illusion of freedom of information in the digital age.

Is all this transparency within the scope of public procurement? Does it make any sense that nobody is ultimately accountable for inventing, casting and performing arrogant institutional scams that impoverish and ridicule public discourse and engagement of potential new competitors? The only result of this type of exercise is that it prevents genuine new competitors from entering the field of public procurement as suppliers.

The DWP opportunity

But my determination was not totally destroyed!

In fact, among many other opportunities I came across at the end of June 2014, several seemed - at least from a methodological and procedural point of view - less vague and uncertain than the contract with the construction and transports company I mentioned in the previous article and less cruelly targeted and stupid than the MoJ's one I described here.

I found interesting the possibility of a contract advertised by DWP. They were looking for an “Independent Assessment Assurance Provider”. The type of consultancy and operational work sought was fitting with my own value proposition - though it was still far from being finalised and had such terribly known embedded political risks of being decommissioned or abandoned any time soon.

A pre-engagement notice was dispatched by DWP on the 23rd June 2014 through the OJEU and with an ITT summary published through their own procurement portal. This said that:

“The Department for Work and Pensions intends to contract for an Independent Assessment Assurance Provider (IAAP) to provide an independent oversight of the clinical quality of its Health Services Assessment contracts. The IAAP service will be used to provide assurance on clinical quality by assuring a statistically valid sample of records, reports and health service professional portfolios. We are seeking organisations who can therefore provide these services across a range of different health service assessment contracts.”

I registered for the pre-engagement event arranged by the buyer in London for the 2nd July 2014. What seemed interesting in this instance was the possibility of meeting people face to face, an opportunity to speed up the whole process and to liaise and network with other micro-businesses.

The provisional timetable was that the Authority should issue the Invitation to Tender in August 2014 and then award the contract by December 2014.

The Authority would not allow suppliers to respond by Consortia so that my main scope before, during and after the pre-engagement event would be to see how to practically access the opportunity to work either directly with DWP or to engage, as a sub-contractor, with other bigger companies in spite of the fact that we would not have any terms of reference in place to start with. Would we be able to start talking about working together from scratch? I must confess I was quite sceptical but nonetheless intrigued.

The engagement event was well attended, with about two dozens of representatives from a number of major consultancies and usual providers of auditing, risk management and assurance services to Government departments joining the meeting and showing a genuine interest in the exercise but for a couple of exceptions who raised concerns about legal compliance and insurance or liabilities issues.

I was the only micro-business sole proprietorship attending the event as far as I can remember. For a moment, I felt intimidated by the people representing various consultancies, auditors and other usual Government suppliers: these would be my potential employers and clients more than my competitors! But then I thought the event may be the right occasion to get in touch with all of them at once and show them who I am and what I am capable of.

We had very clear presentations by various members of the DWP team, introducing the DWP Commercial Directorate aim in respect of the Health Services Market IAAP procurement requirement (Bridge Platts) and explaining the decision behind the technicalities (John Mazzeo and Shelley Fuller, from the DWP Strategy Health and Wellbeing) to finish with the financial aspects and the payment models DWP Commercial Finance would like to explore (Alan Ward).

The scope of having an external provider for both clinical assurance and non clinical audit functions for the new Health and Work Service (HWS) and for the Health and Disability Assessment Services (HDSAS) was clear. Such provider would operate across a range of different contracts.

The following Q&A session (a log of which was kindly provided to all) highlighted the general lack of focus and consistency on the side of the buyer's policies that transpired following the presentations we were given: it seemed DWP had the intention to engage with an increased number of small businesses, leaning towards that “paradigm change” in procurement that had been heavily publicised by ministers but ... they simply did not know how to do it, at least for the time being, leaving opened the mentioned objections about the requirement in terms of actual liabilities and compliance issues that could not be guaranteed by small and micro-businesses.

Few of us, including myself, wanted to understand more about other substantial aspects of the contract at stake, and particularly those implicit "soft" aspects (conflicts of interests, frictions, resistance, risk avoidance) that could undermine a project in which different professional families and communities were supposed to work together - leading to the integration of clinical and non clinical expertise.

When, how, why general practitioners would accept to be assessed on how they assess disability by somebody who works for external providers of DWP - and often only on a temporary or freelance basis - or how to prevent the auditors from moving the goalposts when they are at the same time authors of the assessment criteria and actual examiners - with or without clinical credentials, in the absence of overarching standards agreed by everybody.

I tried to make my point – and several eyes in the audience seemed to agree – that it is always preferable to separate the definition of assurance criteria from the actual auditing stage: this is true for both clinical and non clinical matters or whatever and in a number of contexts in which the separation of function works as a basic governance technique, to prevent biased decisions and the rejection of assessment and judgements.

The justice system is or it should be based on such basic principles. The education system is or should be based on such basic principles. Why the health and wellbeing system should work differently? This is why standards exist at the end of the day: technical rules, bylaws and standards fix reference points out of the immediately competitive field or interests of a market player or a trust.

When institutions fail to provide the right quality standards and assessment tools at the right time it is likely because they have missed an innovation train and do not have the right process in place anymore. That must be updated or reinvented.

As the meeting time was over, it was agreed the Q&A session would continue online. I submitted the following technical questions, reported with the answers here:

  1. Q: A reference to an independent review DWP commissioned about quality assurance processes [presumably in 2013-2014] has been made during the presentation - slide "background and introduction p. 5". Would it be possible to provide access to the document containing the findings of such review? 

    A: The document referred to, as noted in the presentation, recommended the introduction of an independent assurance function. The report itself represented a snapshot of a given period in time and any issues identified have been addressed with the incumbent provider.
  2. Q: Although the entire work of the IAAP is assumed to be on electronic records, no reference has been made to assurance criteria or IT security requirements in respect of cyber crime risks (id est the risks of tampering of electronic records) at any stage of the supply and along the various processes involved in the organisation of the future Health and Work Service. The contract is not classified under 72300000 (Data Management) neither. Is this intentional? Can you provide specifications on the point?
    A: We do not have this level of detail at this point in the procurement. This will be included in the specification.
  3. Q No reference has been made to other standards under a risk management and change management perspective - although the discussion highlighted that the supply falls into an innovative area in which a collaborative approach and shared methodologies (in the sense of industrial established standard) are highly needed. Is this intentional? Can you provide specifications on the point?
    A We do not have further details at this stage. This will be included in the specification.

So far, so good. At least, this time, the time I spent on the ITT was quantifiable in about one or two days all together.

Nothing happened after the engagement event and the follow up session of online Q&A until December 2014.

After I made the FOIA request about the MoJ ITT, a letter arrived in December 2014. The letter was informing that the most predictable solution had took over any other innovative approach:

“Following a period of due diligence the Department has decided to procure an interim short term Assurance contract from the existing Government Consultancy One Framework managed by the Crown Commercial Service. The Department will be formalising its future IAAP succession strategy during the middle of 2015. Any future contract opportunity would be advertised on Contracts Finder and through a notice in the Journal of the European Union.”

Conclusions

I have registered with several procurement portals, actively engaged with few ITT that absorbed almost all my working time for a couple of months and found overall the process time consuming and unsuitable for a micro or small business.

One year on, I have suspended any engagement with government departments and effort to obtain public contracts.

I actually feel I have not been granted the right to even compete for a public contract: the type and nature of consultancy services I can offer does not require most of the times the level of publicity that I am constantly nudged - or bombarded - to make via social media or through long chains of inefficient interactions on this or that government campaign or policy, without having anything in return.

Officials - or more likely freelance employed by large contractors that work in advertising and market research on behalf of Government departments - at the Minister of Defence and at the various Catapults have implemented the idea of pre-engagement procurement events following the example of DWP and I have attended some others of these without following up but for trying to make contact with bigger firms.

Would it be possible for public procurement managers to have clear rules and processes in place so that they can consider buying services from small businesses without asking them to spend days, weeks or months in preparation of interminable applications and proposals, harvesting insight, ideas, detailed business cases, briefs and requirements that end populating the databases of the 'winner takes all' usual big contractors, without giving the small business owners anything in return and even dilapidating, trivialising and spoiling their expertise and intellectual property?

In sum, when I can, I keep on putting forward the idea that a standard grammar is needed to build successful collaborations. I trust there is a genuine and positive intention in the idea (crucial for the civil service reform) of a wider access for all to public procurement.

Meanwhile, news have confirmed that my failed attempts to engage for public contracts have been heard: the Prime Minister decided to take control over the Ministry of Justice policy on FOI requests. The MoJ Permanent Secretary Ursula Brennan retired. I suspect the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham - with whom I shared many concerns besides the fact we were both employees of WPP long time ago - insists in retaining a gross power of interference within private and public affairs in the name of privacy rights (and the excuse of protection of vulnerable and disadvantaged families and individuals) that no longer makes sense because deeply inconsistent with requirements of accountability and auditing.

Each penny, and each transaction impacting the public purse should be made simply and straightforwardly knowledgeable, accessible and understandable. Members of the public and small businesses enjoy, most of the time, heavy lights on their lives and not mafia secrecies or suspicious trafficking of personal details. There is no reason why civil servants should not be identified and authenticate themselves at any stage of a procurement process.

Theatre should find other ways to make money and get out of the spreadsheets and public processes. Credit should be given when credit is due to new competitors, no matter their size, because of their insight and intellectual property contributions, using common rules of royalties on the circulation of their documents and data in any form. Small businesses should have quotas of public outsourced work in any government department, using the extraordinary efficient dashboard power given to major programme managers by ICT systems that allow work packages to be distributed among multiple suppliers, not just be casted for consultations or ...to test the catering services at engagement meetings!

A particular aspect of both the ITTs exercises I described here was the general absence on the side of the buyers of any reference to information security issues: I believe this should be, on the contrary, a mainstream priority, that should be incorporated in any data and information management process, and never trivialised.

Assessing the quality of information in our time consists first of all in assessing its credibility and utility in the public perception, eliminating risks of scams, frauds, forgeries and data tampering as well as libel and slander that parasite human communications at the beginning of any evaluation process. Whenever a new goal is being defined, no matter if there are controversial political or social issues, it is convenient to slow down the implementation stages and review all the plans from the perspective of information integrity and the unintended consequences that something wrong goes viral, making enormous damage to the people and businesses involved.

Data security is as an aspect of any problem treated digitally, and not a tick-box, ancillary requisite for the solutions.

Public procurement in the UK - but similar processes have taken place in other EU Countries in recent years - has been turned upside down by the recent reform of the Civil Service. Various austerity policies and experiments with new methodologies for public engagement with science and the law have shown the risk that without sound and persistent management any attempt to change goes melted in small worlds dynamics.

To complicate the scenario, Government departments have been encouraged to experiment with new channels (social media, events) of communications and marketing, often copying brilliant ideas from the private sectors that are unlikely to generate new fair, convenient and resilient public processes.

I hope the lenght of this article does not discourage anybody to consider what change really means in and for the public sector.