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Conflict identification, avoidance and management
With all of our engagements we adhere to strict processes to protect against actual or potential conflicts of interest to arise with our work or with our client relationships. From time to time it is inevitable that different teams within Niche will work with the same clients directly, or in close proximity within the same system. We may be working with the same client on a number of different projects. This in itself does not necessarily present a conflict, unless, we are simultaneously providing advisory support and audit/ review / evaluation activity at the same time (or in a sequential timescale) in the same subject area or within the same working group.
In order to identify, avoid or manage conflicts we have a number of steps that we routinely put into place:
1. At the outset of each potential engagement we undertake a Partner-led exercise ‘decision to bid’ to identify the main client/s, ultimate holding party and proxy parties to the proposed engagement.
2. We examine, through an established decision tree, whether a conflict or potential conflict exists with the project or with the client relationship.
3. If a conflict or the potential for conflict is deemed to exist, we will then assess whether this prohibits or excludes us from bidding for the work or whether we proceed to bid for the work, notify that a conflict or potential for conflict may exist and put into place a management statement and action plan.
4. The management action-plan may involve taking actions like ensuring that different Partners within the firm are responsible for leading different work. We can also put into place a strict no-disclosure protocol between teams. As a matter of course, only teams named on individual projects are given access to relevant client files and so individuals not connected to projects are, at all times, unable to access client information.
5. At key stages throughout the lifespan of a project, we re-assess the conflict or potential for conflict during project updates, if the status of a review changes at any point we will take the relevant action to update the client or proxy and will take suitable steps to address the issue as it arises.
As a firm, we do not state any implementation of ‘Chinese Walls’ as we are not FCA regulated and also, these are difficult to enforce. We work principally on a conflict avoidance and not a conflict management protocol.
Niche Health and Social Care Consulting do not offer, invite or accept any inducements for work undertaken with any of our clients or any individuals seen to have any influence in relation to any engagement. If any members of staff are deemed to have offered or received inducements for work this could be a case for instant dismissal. We conduct client engagements with the utmost integrity at all times and we are mindful of all anti-fraud protections, anti-money laundering and other protection protocols particularly for our public sector clients.
An inducement could be perceived in a number of different ways and is not just in relation to selling or winning work. An inducement, for example, could be in relation to provide a ‘favourable’ opinion in relation to a piece of work such as an investigation in return for the promise of more work or support with relationship development etc.
Most of our work is won through fair competition through NHS procurement frameworks. This means that no one single bidder is given an unfair advantage of any other provider. That provider may offer ‘reasonable incentives’ to purchasers, but this is different to an inducement under fair competition rules. Reasonable incentives may include offering discounts for work, increasing the scope of the review or including senior staff time for free.
Where we enter into contracts outside of NHS Framework provision, we are particularly mindful to assess the potential for conflicts (above) and the potential for inducements, particularly when undertaking engagements with the same client. We carefully examine the ‘perception’ for inducements and we will decide whether further action is needed to affirm our continuous commitment to anti-bribery and anti-inducement laws in line with our good standing.
As a firm, we value our independence and integrity to the utmost. We have built a solid, long-standing reputation for delivering independent investigations, reviews and evaluations which can be trusted by our clients and regulatory bodies nationally. Niche is a wholly owned (by its Directors), independent consultancy. We have no external shareholders, and no contractual or other relationships with any other organisation which would compromise our independence. Our Directors and senior staff have no conflicting interests in any other organisation and we ask them to make regular declarations in this regard.
It is crucial that our clients, regulators and families that we work with can be assured that we will take an independent view, regardless of the bill-payer and consequences of our findings. When we consider bidding for a potential project, we always undertake a “Decision to Bid” analysis. This explicitly includes consideration of any conflicts of interest which we have, or might be perceived to have, with either the organisation inviting tenders or any relevant partners or proxies of that organisation. This process sometimes results in our not bidding for work for which we would otherwise be qualified – for example if we have a contract with a commissioner of mental health services to develop its strategy, and are then asked by a provider to help them seek work from that commissioner.
During the course of project delivery, we always resist actions which could compromise the independence of our analysis or advice. Evaluation, governance and strategic advice form the major part of our work, and we do at times experience pressure to emphasise particular points over others in our findings. We always make clear that we welcome corrections of factual accuracy in our work, but we are wholly and independently responsible for our findings, conclusions and recommendations. No other agency – including our client – has the authority to “sign off” our report, or to insist on a particular form of finding, and we would escalate to senior staff any effort to influence our conclusions in this way.
Within our firm we adopt different approaches to independence, as one single approach cannot be universally applied, depending on the service-line undertaking the work. Each service-line has devised a working statement on independence as follows;
• Investigations – Our investigations practice adopts the highest level of independence allowable within the contract and scope of the work. In most instances we contract directly with NHS England as the over-arching bill-payer; this ensures we are not perceived at any point to have reduced independence as the result of payments or disbursements. When we contract directly with clients’ we ensure we are always mindful of our perceived independence.
We understand, through all investigations that there is often more than one accountability, even where there is a single ‘bill-payer’. Other accountable parties include:
• Families and carers party to the investigation
• Staff at the Trust
• HM Coroner
• NHS England
• Crown Prosecution Service
• Other agencies involved
• The public
During our investigations we apply routine checks and balances, we also regularly work with staff and associates who are professionally registered, such as nurses and doctors and who are also obligated to uphold probity under their licence conditions.
• Governance and Assurance – As we are not FCA regulated or governance practice works in line with audit principles, but provides non ‘opinion’ based advisory support. Our advice is given principally from multiple years’ industry experience as well as research and primary evidence interpretation from our fieldwork activities.
Before entering into client engagements, we review the potential for conflicts and inducements, taking action in line with those described above. Our work is of the highest professional standards and all work is covered under a contract scope, to be defined by the client. All work is conveyed under a ‘letter of transmittal’ and clients are asked to reflect if the work we have produced, is sufficient to meet the terms of reference for the review.
All work is assessed using our professional standards review approaches.
• Evaluation – We routinely undertake large-scale national evaluations with multiple clients and proxy clients. Many of these we have worked with on previous occasions. At the outset of each engagement we examine our independence carefully and we assess whether there is the potential for conflict or inducement.
All of our evaluation activities are undertaken in line principles which are designed to minimise the introduction of bias into our programme design and principles. Where it is necessary, we will ensure that we have appropriate ethical approval prior to undertaking our research or evaluation work.
In all of our evaluation work we consider the risks of bias and take steps to prevent this, for example, we would use different fieldwork teams, and in some cases, we might use a different Niche Partner to lead the review. We highlight any potential concerns to our clients and we provide a plan to mitigate any risks so as to avoid any later queries about our work.
• Modelling and Analytics – With many of our modelling and analytics projects we are dealing with multiple thousands of data points across several different client groups. We are, in all instances, seen as the data handler and not as controller. This means that we do not verify or analyse the data we are given in line with any UK or other auditing standards. The view of our analysts is derived only from the data provided by the client upon which we can only undertake minimal ‘cleansing’ and validation. Wherever possible, we seek data in its rawest form, to permit us to validate the accuracy of any data reports, and not to rely on clients’ or partners’ internally analysed or aggregated data.
Where we are working with multiple client groups (even if there is only one ‘bill-payer’) we take additional care to ensure candid engagement throughout the lifespan of the project. This involves ensuring all parties have visibility on our assumptions and have the opportunity to query and question our models and strategic frameworks.
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