Prime Minister David Cameron said in February that he wanted to increase the amount of government work awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises from around 5 to 25 per cent. In order to do that, he said, it needed to overhaul the way it does business and would support central government purchasers who take a chance on smaller suppliers.
However, speaking at the SME Public Procurement Conference 2011 at Painters’ Hall in London yesterday, Chuka Umunna MP, shadow minister for small business and enterprise questioned whether another government policy – more aggregated deals – was resulting in fewer opportunities for SMEs.
Government CPO John Collington listed the many changes under way to help hit this target, including:
- A mystery shopper scheme, which enables SMEs to log complaints about poor procurement practice
- A contracts finder which lists opportunities over £10,000
- The appointment of Stephen Allott as a link between government and smaller suppliers
- The simplification of the pre-qualification process, and
- SME product and service innovation surgeries that will act like a Dragons’ Den for government.
And Hayley Addison, senior commercial policy manager at the Department for Work and Pensions, said her department uses a tool that flags up a reminder to buyers doing a deal to examine if it could be broken into smaller lots and whether there are opportunities to get SMEs involved.
There’s clearly some good work going on, and while small suppliers in the audience welcomed the changes, many were unaware of them and others said their experience was still that PQQs and tenders were too complicated.
Collington is right that culture change takes time, but public sector buyers do need to find a better way of communicating with smaller businesses (no mean feat considering there are 4.4 million of them in the UK). They also need to ensure the rationale behind the policy to use more SMEs is clear to buyers down the chain. If it becomes a 25 per cent target tick-box exercise it might not be the right SMEs winning business for the right reasons.