When Tyler was a little younger, he and his bros devised an amusing mealtime game called Pass the Butter.
It originated when one of us asked another to "pass the butter", forgetting to specify that the butter should remain in the butter dish at all times throughout the transaction. You can well imagine the hilarity that ensued when the butter was hand-scooped out of the dish and schlocked across the table. "Well, you never said you wanted it in the dish. You should have said 'pass the butter in the butter dish'.
It must be admitted that the authorities were somewhat less than amused, but we were soon playing regularly. And the more we played, the more skilful we got spotting the loopholes in even the most tortuously worded requests: "please pass me the butter, in the butter dish, the right way up, without strawberry jam or any other foreign substances poured, smeared, or otherwise laid over or under it..."
I mention Pass the Butter because it's an excellent way to learn about contract specification. And it's important for taxpayers because the government has clearly never played.
Earlier in the week we blogged the appointment of Novation to manage NHS procurement, and concerns that the Department of Health might not be capable of correctly specifying its requirements in terms of quality. We all want to save money, but cheapest is not always right, especially if we're talking medical supplies.
There are similar concerns with the Office for Government Commerce's reverse e-auction programme. In reverse auctions, competing suppliers bid against each other in reducing their offered supply price until only one is left. So the buyer knows he's found the very cheapest supplier available.
And in charge of the OGC's Gershon (doh) programme for construction and facilities management is one Peter Wooliscroft. He reckons he can save £8bn, and likes reverse auctions so much, it's turned him into "an evangelist":
"It's fired Wooliscroft with a Messianic fervour. His enthusiasm for his new mission fills the room. He talks rapidly, barely taking a breath, thumping the table and waving his arms for emphasis, then leaping up to scribble diagrams on a white board.
"We are the new face of the OGC. We are an agent for change. This is not a talking shop. We’ve had enough talking. We are saying to clients, we can use our professionalism and experience to identify where your supply chain is shattered and creating waste. We can find the cuckoo in your nest!"
He sounds nearly as scary as that husky guy who runs the NHS supercomputer. Why can't we just have some...like, normal people in charge?
But at least it sounds attractive for taxpayers. Right? Well, that all depends on whether you think our arm waving evangelists are capable of specifying exactly what they're buying.
Because while it's easy enough for West Texas Intermediate and other commodities, it's much trickier for medical supplies or facilities management. As we saw here, it's tough even with basics like surgical gloves, let alone hip replacements.
And those cut-price suppliers don't just give up their profit margins with a smile and a shrug. They react to the pricing pressure by stripping down what they supply to the greatest possible extent. So the customer has to specify exactly what they're buying, right down to the final dotted i.
And as Pass the Butter teaches so well, that's a lot easier said than done. Which is why according to Health Equipment Supplies magazine, "the US rarely uses reverse e-auctions in healthcare purchasing". Indeed, "competitive tendering is said to be outlawed for Class III devices by Medicare – a US government health insurance program".
As we know only too well, the public sector has a very poor record as customer, routinely overpaying for goods that don't do what it says on the tin. But simply going down the market and buying the cheapest stuff you can find is not the way to fix it (see here for news of NHS heart patients being given fake statins).
We need to watch this one very carefully.