Foreign aid contractor accused of sexing up testimonials it sent to MPs

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MPs have heavily criticised a UK foreign aid contractor which tried to "unduly influence" a parliamentary inquiry by engineering "letters of appreciation" from beneficiaries of its projects.

The Commons International Development Committee said Adam Smith International (ASI) "overstepped the mark" in soliciting testimonials which were submitted as evidence to the MPs' inquiry into the Government's use of aid contractors.

There is also evidence that ASI took an "active" role in influencing the content of the evidence to show its projects in a better light.

In a damning report, the committee said ASI's actions were "deplorable", "entirely inappropriate" and showed a "serious lack of judgment".

Committee chairman Stephen Twigg said: "The committee deplores the inappropriate conduct shown by Adam Smith International - the attempts to conceal their involvement in collecting beneficial testimonials about their work and the application of pressure on beneficiaries to submit evidence.

"Furthermore, Adam Smith International sought to unduly influence the committee by engineering submissions of written evidence.

"This shows blatant disregard for the proceedings of select committees, and by extension, the House of Commons.

"Taken together, the actions of Adam Smith International were entirely inappropriate and show a serious lack of judgment.

"This investigation has raised serious concerns about the culture within one of the leading organisations involved in the delivery of UK aid contracts." 

The contractor claimed it solicited the evidence in response to a request from a "senior official" at the Department for International Development (DfID).

DfID, however, said there was a misunderstanding of what it was asking for and the committee found that "on the balance of probabilities" the department mentioned the idea to ASI, which the contractor then interpreted as a request.

Once ASI went to work in getting the testimonials, its role "went beyond" making beneficiaries aware of the committee's inquiry and offering assistance if they wanted to submit evidence.

Its director, Peter Young, emailed project managers telling them to "step up and be helpful" while some of ASI's approaches to beneficiaries referenced the possibility of having funding cut.

The committee said that in the "most egregious example", a project manager told an official in a beneficiary organisation: "I'm sure you are very busy but there is a very real chance that the UK Government may change its focus on financing technical assistance from contractors due to media pressure.

"Given that (the beneficiary organisation) is expecting another DfID programme in 2017, such move will be to the detriment of (the beneficiary organisation)."

ASI also took a role in influencing the content of the evidence and, in one case, one of its managers told a beneficiary to re-draft its "generic" submission in order to "really highlight" how the contractor "has been exceptional and surpassed other programmes".

In addition, 18 of the 24 testimonials were sent to the committee online by ASI staff, which the contractor said was to lift the administrative burden from beneficiaries.

ASI also altered and removed metadata on the documents, which it said was to protect staff privacy and "avoid misunderstanding over the ownership of the testimonials being submitted".

The committee accepted this as a valid reason but said instructions provided to staff by Mr Young "raised questions" about whether this was the real purpose of editing the metadata and noted that it was not standard practice.

In an email to staff, Mr Young said: "We need to take care that an ASI employee is not identified as the creator or amender of the document in the properties field."

A DfID spokesman said: "Like the committee, we are very concerned about the culture and behaviour of Adam Smith International.

"DfID has conducted its own forensic investigation into the allegations that ASI falsified submissions to the IDC and made use of improperly obtained DfID documents for commercial gain.

"Since these allegations came to light, we have frozen awards of new contracts to ASI and we are taking detailed advice on next steps." 

A spokeswoman for ASI said: "We have received the report from the International Development Committee into our conduct and are pleased that the committee recognises the thoroughness of our own investigation and that we have been completely transparent about its findings.

"We are also pleased that the committee accepts that they were not told untruths or misled, and that no submissions were falsified.

"We asked for testimonials from our beneficiaries in good faith, believing they would help the IDC understand the impact and value of the work done by DfID's contractors.

"Our own investigation concurs with the committee's findings that the way we did this 'overstepped the mark', which we sincerely regret.

"To ensure that this does not happen again we have taken rigorous steps to tighten procedures and strengthen oversight."