Pressure grows on Contract Management & Outsourcing
The UK’s National Audit Office has issued a damning report on the state of contract management in the outsourcing industry, questioning the integrity of suppliers and suggesting a lack of competence in Government departments to manage such relationships.
Given the findings and observations of the NAO and recent investigations by the UK Public Accounts committee, what steps should suppliers and customers be taking to raise the quality and integrity of contract performance? It is clear that obligations and commitments need more rigorous analysis, both in terms of capability to deliver and in actual delivery. But is this a shared responsibility, or does the burden fall disproportionately on one party? And within this, where does organizational and operational responsibility for ‘due diligence’ lie; for example, should highly trained contract managers be more directly responsible for signing off against commitments and the oversight of internal integrity? Given their operational role, might this be more effective than oversight by risk or audit functions, which tend to report after the fact?
It would be a mistake to see this as a problem that is peculiar to the UK. Repeated issues in the US (where there is supposed contract management rigor) suggest similar challenges. And the experience of many private sector firms has in truth not been much different.
Until these issues are resolved, publications such as the Financial Times suggest that organizations should not enter into complex contracts where they do not have the capabilities for their management. But is it management that is the problem, or is it the selection criteria? In other words, an organization that lacks contract management competence probably does not understand its value and therefore does not look for this quality in its suppliers. Indeed, suppliers with strong contract management discipline are quite likely to lose a competitive tender because a) they will be more conservative in the commitments they make and b) they are likely to bid a higher price. The reasons for this are that a strong contracts or commercial function acts as a constraint on the natural over-optimism of Sales and senior management; and such organizations generally do not follow a model of ‘bid low and make up margin later’. This latter attitude, induced by price-based supplier selection, leads to low levels of supplier integrity, which include aggressive pursuit of claims and a readiness to deliberately over-charge.
But does this mean that for complex relationships to work, both parties must have equal competence in contract management? I think the answer is no; but the weaker party must certainly appreciate their potential exposure and select and manage their trading partners accordingly. Processes that are driven by a conjunction of price-based procurement and risk-allocating contracts is clearly not adequate – and may even drive the opportunistic behavior that is evident in some suppliers.
Tomorrow, I will suggest some mechanisms that might address these problems.