Can Cam fix it? Yes he can! UK government opens contracts to small businesses.

One of the many paradoxes of governments is they tend to spout lots of waffle about believing that small, entrepreneurial businesses are the future of the country, are essential to the long term health of the economy, bring untold wealth, health and other intangible benefits to its citizens and they then do absolutely nothing whatsoever to encourage those businesses by purchasing goods and services from them.

It has been abundantly clear to every entrepreneur and small business in the UK since time began that working with the government is really, really hard. Procurement processes are slow, opaque, convoluted and usually end up with large organisations with dedicated teams of people focused only on sucking as much money out of the system as possible winning contracts.

Could some of this, after years of consultation exercises that led to nothing very much happening at all, be about to change? Here’s hoping! In December, Number 10 issued a request for feedback from people who had experienced govenrment procurement processes – in fact they asked,

“What nightmares have you had with procurement?

“How should we fix it?

“What are we doing wrong?”

There was quite a bit of feedback…! From the brilliant, to the brilliantly insane.

This week the government launched a number of measures to try to address some of the problems addressed in this feedback (and frankly stuff that they already knew). Key measures announced include:

  • The launch of a Contracts Finder website. The new online facility, which is available from today, will become the place to find public sector contracting opportunities over £10,000 and will make the Government’s procurement process totally transparent. From now on, all organisations need to do is to specify which contracts they are interested in and details will be emailed free of charge.
  • The appointment of Stephen Allott as a new Crown Commercial Representative (CCR) for SMEs. His task will be to build a more strategic dialogue between HM Government and smaller suppliers – giving those suppliers a strong voice at the top table.
  • The launch of SME (Small Medium Enterprise) product surgeries. These events will be led by the new CCR and will give SMEs the opportunity to pitch innovative products and services direct to a panel of senior procurement and operational professionals from central government and the wider public sector.
  • A completely new approach to assessing companies and organisations who want to do business with Government, so that SMEs are not disadvantaged including:
    • Seeking to eliminate PQQs (Pre-Qualification Questionnaires) for all central government procurements under £100,000. This represents a radical change in the way pre-qualification is carried out and means that from now on procurers will be free to choose the best route to market for their individual circumstances.
    • Allowing firms to submit their prequalification data once for all procurements in common commodities. This will put an end to companies having to submit the same data time and time again, saving time and money for the suppliers and for government.
  • Publication of the findings of the Cabinet Office’s LEAN Review into procurement processes. This will show the Government is doing all it can to reduce waste, tackle bureaucracy and lower the cost of doing business with government.

Some of these points are pretty basic, but some make me think there could be some real progress.

  • Product surgeries are a great idea – if they can help to educate both government procurement people about the ideas that are coming out of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and also help small companies understand the pros and cons of selling to government, they will be doing an important thing.
  • Reducing the amount of ridiculous paperwork involved in making government procurement pitches under £ 100,000 (but why not a much higher number?) My memory in another life of making bids for research projects of even a couple of hundred thousand pounds was that it usually took about three times as much time to get all the paperwork in place than it did to actually write a proposal. As we won more projects, it got much easier as we had meaningless pages of boilerplate text that we could just cut and paste but this really does make it hard for people to get a break in the first place. (One of our particular favourites was the 20 page ‘green credentials’ statement that we had to print four copies of stating we tried to use recycled paper whenever possible…)
  • Bringing in someone like Stephen Allott, who has had significant experience in growing entrepreneurial businesses, to specifically champion the cause of SMEs, is a good thing. He has spent a long time working on solutions to the problems here and although he is not an entrepreneur, he is a civil servant, he should be able to engage with government in a way that someone like Lord Sugar just never could.

I should declare an interest on that last point – I like Stephen even though he turned me down for the last job interview I ever had. We have stayed in touch ever since and he will be speaking at our forthcoming debate:

‘Should the UK worry if ARM & Autonomy were the last big UK technology businesses?’

This discussion will be moderated by Rory Cellan-Jones at our CEO Tales discussion, March 16th. Given his new job, he should have some interesting things to say.

Register for BLN CEO Tales & Networking Drinks - ‘Should the UK worry if ARM & Autonomy were the last big UK technology businesses?’ in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite