The boss of Government procurement appeared in front of Mrs Hodge’s committee. Stephen Kelly is the Chief Operating Officer for the Cabinet Office and is responsible for the multi-billion pounds worth of contracts let by the public sector.
He looks like the young Adam Faith, has hair good enough for a gay bar and speaks a sort of concrete poetry that only sounds as though it means anything.
He was asked an interesting and direct question – “Will you be putting a requirement for open book accounting into your standard contract?”
He said: “Well, effectively, government is pushing transparency aggressively.”
It sounded like a Yes but could as easily have been a covert No.
Is he going to allow open access for the National Audit Office to any public service contract at any time?
“It’s appropriate to let that lesson land and see what we’ve learned from it.”
That’s definitely neither Yes nor No.
Asked about letting in third party auditors, he constructed an answer so brilliant it could be used to answer any question he might ever be asked:
“I think that the principle we’ve talked about is already driving some of these other areas that historically we’ve been interested in and candidly we need to reset some of these on a periodic basis when contracts are reviewed.”
The NAO man at the end of the committee table observed that Government procurement wasn’t doing very well maintaining a competitive environment among its suppliers. Thus, a little operator gets a contract and is immediately bought up by one of the big four contractors.
“Government stands by and watches the consolidation of the supplier base,” the NAO said.
Kelly responded: “I think you’re absolutely right. We’re not here to defend the record because we’ve got tons to do and we’re in the foothills … “ And away he went, hands flashing and dancing, into an account of how much cash had been saved from current budgets – the answer to an entirely different question.
Ultimately he was going to assert, ruefully, “We have to acknowledge we are where we are.”
That alone is grounds for dismissal.
Mr Kelly looks like the sort of business figure that public servants think is businesslike. Goodness knows they are, even the best of them, babes in a pram full of candy.
Here is a selection of pleasures that the committee winkled out.
Only recently have departments been allowed to use ‘past performace’ as a criterion for evaluating a contractor’s bid. No one ever gets sacked, and nor, to all intents and purposes, do contracting companies. Some IT companies are making 45 per cent earnings out of their contracts before interest and tax.
There is a Statutory instrument that says Home Office contracts HAVE to go to Serco or G4S (who pay no tax to speak of in Britain).
One of the witnesses revealed that Serco had been billing the Ministry of Justice for almost a decade for work they hadn’t been doing.
Another MoD boss had no idea of the cost of 800 staff kept on to cover-up an IT failure.
Has anyone been sacked?
The answer to that is: “There is an ongoing disciplinary process going on,”
What is to be done?
Kelly said: “The challenge for us, honestly? It’s to raise capability on our side of the table.”
“And so, I resign!” (he didn’t say.)