Coyness over 'open tender' KPMG health contract - a systemic problem surfaces?

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The Department of Health has increased the number of its press officers from 26 in 2006/7 to 31 in 2008/9, according to a reply given to FOI campaigner Heather Brooke.

Some FOI details on the tens of millions the Department of Health spends on PR, marketing and advertising are in the tables at the end of this article.

The figures in the FOI answers are only part of the story: they do not, for instance, include the money spent by NHS Connecting for Health on PR firms such as Porter Novelli, Fishburn Hedges, Good Relations and its parent Bell Pottinger.
 
The Department spends millions telling us what its officials believe we need to know; they keep an electric fence around information they don't consider it profitable to release.

The following is an example. It goes into detail because journalists tend not to write about their dealings with Whitehall press officers, a reticence which, perhaps, makes it comfortable for departments to say nothing when asked difficult questions.

It should be remembered that when press officers don't answer journalists' questions, it's probably because they can't get the answers from within their department: officials don't want to answer the question.

Computer Weekly asked simply on 3 August 2009: did a contract awarded to KPMG to review NHS IT go to open tender? The reply from the Department of Health's press officer was straightforward: "It was an open tender." 

He explained: "It is only right that in a digital age we are constantly looking at ways to enhance the work of the Department. That is why KPMG have been commissioned to do this and will be reporting to the Department of Health shortly."

When asked whether the KPMG report would be published, he was surprisingly frank: the Department would review the contents of the report and would make a decision after that on whether to publish it, he said.

My next question to him was prompted by the concern some suppliers have expressed to us that the DH sometimes awards contracts to favoured companies, without open competitive tenders. So I asked:

"Can I see the tender please or can you send me a link to it - re KPMG being appointed to do a report on enhancing the work of the department in a digital age?
 
The press officer was unable to get a response from DH officials.

I pointed out to him that the Department wasn't being very open about the KPMG open tender; and I asked if he could let me know the cost of the contract.

The press officer's reply seemed to contradict his earlier statement that KPMG, in a digital age, was looking at ways to enhance the work of the department.

 He said: "... KPMG is not reviewing NHS IT, or NPfIT, in light of the Digital Britain Report."

He added: "As I've stated quite clearly before, we are constantly looking at ways to enhance the work of the department, and KPMG will be reporting back to shortly on how we can achieve this. The value of the contract is commercial in confidence."

This wasn't the soothingly agreeable tone that's usual in the Department's press releases, promotional DVDs, marketing brochures and advertising.
 
I asked whether all of the contracts awarded to KPMG by the Department had gone to open tender and whether the DH would publish the tenders? The reply: "With regards to wider KPMG contracts, this information is not held in one central format."

After a month of my asking questions on the KPMG contract, the press officer emailed an attachment with the Word filename of "tender" - no mention of "open".

The pages in the attached document - which I have published in full in a separate post - had no headings, no name of the contracting authority, no identifying marks at all in fact.

This is an example of the first part of an open tender I picked at random:

SECTION I: CONTRACTING AUTHORITY
I.1) NAME, ADDRESSES AND CONTACT POINT(S):
NHS Supply Chain acting as an agent for NHS Business Services Authority, NHS Supply Chain Foxbridge Way, Attn: Abraham Worwui, UK-Normanton WF6 1TL. Tel. +44 1924328874. E-mail: abraham.worwui@suppplychain.nhs.uk.
Internet address(es):
General address of the contracting authority: http://procurement.supplychain.nhs.uk.
Address of the buyer profile: http://procurement.supplychain.nhs.uk.

This is the first part of the "tender" document the Department of Health emailed to me:


1.    PROPOSAL OUTCOMES

1.1    The specification covers four pieces of work which are described in more detail below:

1.2    Vision: A "thinkpiece" on the vision for the services that could be brought together from NHS Direct and NHS Choices which would comprise a national offer for the public on services that can be delivered through a range of digital channels. This work does not need to cover a vision for services for NHS staff but it does need to be aware of this work, which is led by Colin Douglas, Director of NHS Communications.. The vision needs to cover two areas ..."

I told the DH press officer that what he'd emailed didn't look like an open tender, as published under EC procurement rules. I asked again: "Was the contract formally advertised, or was KPMG just appointed?"

No response.

Today, six weeks after he'd first received questions about the KPMG deal, the Department of Health's press officer dealing with the matter has provided no evidence of the contract's having been awarded through an open tender.

If the contract wasn't awarded through an open, competitive tender, that would explain the press officer's coyness.

Which prompts the question: does the Department make a habit of awarding new work without open competitive tenders?

Some suppliers tell us they do. 

Comment

It's important that officials can prove that they are awarding contracts without fear or favour. It's especially important when departments operate in a mist of secrecy that they account for how they spend public money. That evidence hasn't been provided in this case.

We also question whether the millions being spent on PR and marketing is wholly justified.

Without explaining itself, the Department uses public money to release information selectively, and hides behind the lack of media reporting on its dealings with journalists to refuse to answer questions its officials consider are impertinently probing. 

This leaves the Department's costly PR machinery free to publish only what it considers aggrandizing. And free to keep the rest hidden.

Secrecy allowed the scandal over MPs expenses to remain hidden for decades. The Tories, if they win power, should look hard at whether secrecy within Whitehall is hiding anything.

There's no point in tackling any individual case or contract. It's the systemic secrecy that needs reforming.

**

Some of Heather Brooke's FOI responses are published below, with thanks to Whatdotheyknow.com 


Number of press officers employed by the Department of Health Media Centre, 2006-07 to 2008-09

 

Year

Number of staff

2008-09

31

2007-08

28

2006-07

26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Number of marketing staff employed by the Department of Health 2006-07 to 2008-09

 

Year

Number of staff

2008-09

23

2007-08

20

2006-07

24

 

 

 

 

 

 

Costs for Department of Health Marketing staff, 2006-07 to 2008-09  

 

Year

Cost (£ million)

2008-09

0.863

2007 - 08

0.735

2006 - 07

0.639

 

Figures exclude social security and pension costs.

 

Total spending on Publicity and Advertising 2006-07 to 2008-09

 

Financial Year

Actual Spend £ million)

2008-09

62.6

2007-08

50.3

2006-07

40.7

 

 

 

 

 

 


Links:


KPMG to provide digital strategy for NHS - E-Health Insider


Some of NHS Connecting for Health's central costs - IT Projects blog 


PACS - jewel of the £12.7bn NHS IT programme?- IT Projects blog

 

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