The simple answer to bad suppliers: don't buy from them anymore

So we added another paragraph to the eternal tale of government IT woes this week, with the news that the Home office e-Borders programme to secure Britain’s borders, doesn’t actually secure Britain’s borders.

Of course e-Borders already holds a place in the pantheon of cock-ups, after a Raytheon-led consortium was sacked from its £750m contract in 2010 for missing a string of key milestones. No replacement supplier has yet been found, and e-Borders continues to run on a pilot system developed by IBM in 2004.

The sacking of Raytheon was justifiably lauded at the time as evidence that Whitehall was finally getting tough with underperforming IT suppliers who fail in one project only to get awarded another one later.

The classic case of this was EDS, which was once told to pay up for problems in a project but only agreed on condition it could claw back most of its losses from subsequent contracts.

But even with Raytheon, things are not clear cut, as the supplier is suing the government over the cancellation of its deal, with a longstanding legal case expected to conclude soon.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many people have welcomed news in the Financial Times that impending changes to EU procurement rules will mean that governments can legally blacklist suppliers who are proved to have been deficient in past contracts.

But don’t hold your breath. The EU proposals will not change much.

The UK government already has a policy in place that goes as close to a blacklist as the law will currently allow. The Cabinet Office Strategic supplier risk management policy allows for major suppliers to be designated as “high risk” over poor performance, whereby civil servants can “reduce where possible the extent to which the Strategic Supplier is given additional work.”

The EU rules also state that blacklisting can only last as long as a supplier is not taking steps to address its problems – and part of the Cabinet Office high-risk designation states that the supplier agrees to an improvement plan, thereby – under the EU proposals – meaning they can no longer be blacklisted.

The EU proposals have been in the public domain since 2011, but are only due to be ratified in early December.

There is only so much EU rules can do to prevent any underperforming supplier from being considered for future projects. As Raytheon shows, and as the woeful example of the CSC contract for the NHS National Programme for IT shows, it’s extraordinarily complex to even get rid of a supplier on a project where they have misfired spectacularly.

There is a much simpler solution: Just don’t buy from them anymore.

Legally, government has to accept bids from any interested supplier. It has to demonstrate that they have been judged fairly and that purchasing decisions are open, transparent and not prejudiced. But nowhere does it say who you have to choose.

I was told a tale by one former government CIO about a relatively simple purchase for a number of laptops. He wanted to buy Macs, but was not allowed to specify a supplier when inviting bids. A quick conversation with a Whitehall procurement specialist led to a tender going out for laptop computers capable of running certain key items of software that happened to only run on a Mac.

There are perfectly legal ways already to be sure you don’t buy from a supplier you don’t want. The challenge for government IT buyers is not one of EU rules, it’s one of culture and mindset.

It’s about time somebody did get sacked for buying [insert any of the big IT suppliers who have previously cocked-up a project].