By Tony Collins
The Cabinet Office has today published SME “action plans” for each department.
It says the reforms are “designed” – which is not the same as a commitment – to “significantly open-up the public sector marketplace to small businesses”.
The new plans support what the Cabinet Office calls an “aspiration” for the Government to spend 25% of its budgets on SMEs.
The actions range from:
- breaking large contracts into smaller lots
- working with major suppliers to increase SME access to sub-contracting opportunities
- increasing the amount of information that is available to SMEs about contract opportunities
- holding “product surgeries” for SMEs to pitch innovative ideas
- piloting new procurement methods that are more open to SMEs.
Some of the documents published today could be more aptly described as goodwill gestures to SMEs rather than action plans. Indeed, when read carefully, some of the action plans appear to be a civil service response to an unwanted ministerial decree.
HM Revenue and Customs, which is tied into an £8bn IT outsourcing deal with Capgemini, uses phrases in its SME action plan that are vague and non-committal, such as “build on the work done …”
These are some of the promises HMRC is making to SMEs:
– From June 2011, HMRC will develop and maintain information on its website relevant for SMEs. The information will include, but will not be limited to, signposting for SMEs to access relevant procurement details and how they can work with the Department. The Department will provide clear contact points for additional information and queries.
– Work with the 12 largest prime HMRC suppliers (representing c80% of 3rd party spend) to ensure they identify and engage with their own SME supply chains, including 3/4th level suppliers and agree actions (such as advertising suitable sub-contracting opportunities on Contracts Finder) with them to increase value of spend.
– Build on the work done on the recent open procedure procurement for Debt Collection Services …
– HMRC to consider appropriate procurements that are suitable for SME competition.
The Home office’s action plan is better, though. It says it will:
– review forthcoming procurements and develop standardised processes and procedures to remove barriers to SMEs. “This will ensure the method used is as SME friendly as possible for the contract on offer.” By June 2011.
Alongside publishing the action plans the Cabinet Office is creating a central team, Government Procurement, which will contract for widely-used goods and services for the whole of Government at a single, better price.
This, says the Cabinet Office, will end the “signing of expensive deals by individual departments” and “end poor value contracts such as those where government departments and agencies paid between £350 and £2,000 for the same laptop and between £85 and £240 for the same printer cartridge from the same supplier”.
Central procurement of common items is expected to save more than £3bn a year by 2015 – 25% of the Government’s current annual spending on these items.
Francis Maude says the Government is on track to have saved more than £1bn from tighter spending on discretionary goods and services including consultants and agency staff in the last year.
“Changes to make Government contracts more accessible to SMEs have already led to one not-for-profit SME successfully undercutting larger competitors and winning a £1.6m contract to provide office support services to HM Revenue and Customs,” says the Cabinet Office.
It is bonkers for different parts of Government to be paying vastly different prices for exactly the same goods. We are putting a stop to this madness which has been presided over for too long. Until recently, there wasn’t even any proper central data on procurement spending.
“So, as Sir Philip Green found, major efficiencies are to be found in Government buying. The establishment of Government Procurement means that the days when there was no strategy and no coherence to the way the Government bought goods and services are well and truly at an end…
“We are also determined to press ahead with measures to create a more level playing field so that small organisations and businesses can compete fairly with bigger companies for Government contracts. SMEs can provide better value and more innovative solutions for Government and the actions set out today will support their growth as the economy starts to recover.”
The Cabinet Office says that greater use of the ‘open’ procurement procedure has increased by 12% across the public sector between March and April alone, helping to ensure that all suitable suppliers have their tender proposals considered.
And following the Innovation Launch Pad, five further Dragons’ Den style ‘product surgeries’ are planned so that innovative SMEs can pitch their proposals directly to Government.
The Government bought £66bn of goods and services in 2009/10. An Efficiency Review by Sir Philip Green, which was published in October 2010, found that the Government had not made the most of its size, buying power or credit rating.
Green wanted the mandation of “centralised procurement for common categories”.
Are officials undermining ministerial plans to boost SME work?
There is some evidence emerging, however, that the civil service is misinterpreting ministerial will and standardising contracts by taking work away from SMEs and putting it with a few large companies. Campaign4Change will be looking at this in coming weeks.
We also hope this will be investigated by the new Government Procurement team which will be headed byGovernment Chief Procurement Officer, John Collington.