By Tony Collins
David Cameron, in a speech to a Government procurement conference on 11 February 2011, gave a pledge to ensure that “25% of all government contracts are awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises”.
He said: “If we meet this goal it will mean billions of pounds worth of new business opportunities for SMEs”.
The Government has since dropped its pledge to give SMEs 25% of public sector contracts, though it remains an “aspiration”. To back this up, departments are under pressure to show they have awarded more work to small and medium-sized businesses.
As part of David Cameron’s Transparency commitments, all departments are required to publish each new contract let over £10,000 and state whether this contract has been let to a SME.
This information is available on the new Contracts Finder website alongside tender documents and opportunities. As part of the business plan process each department is also required to measure and publish the percentage of their third party spend that goes directly to SMEs.
The Government says it is investigating how best to collect data on spend with SMEs as sub-contractors.
That said, the firm target of 25% has been dropped because European tendering rules do not allow officials to give contracts specifically to smaller businesses.
The Cabinet Office says its official position now is:
“We will promote small business procurement, in particular by introducing an aspiration that 25% of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium-sized businesses.”
The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has been more cautious. He said at the time of Cameron’s talk that “as much as” 25% of public service contracts will be awarded to the private and voluntary sector in a bid to break up existing public service monopolies.
Have plans for more SME work gone into reverse?
eWeek Europe now reports the concerns of SMEs that the 25% aspiration may give way to plans to consolidate government administrative work which could end up with major suppliers being given even more work.
eWeek Europe says that at the first meeting of the ‘New Suppliers to Government’ working group, which was put together by the Cabinet Office, members said the government’s aspiration to place 25% of its business with SMEs is in direct conflict with projects such as Sir Philip Green’s ‘Efficiency Review’, which pushes for consolidation within the supply chain.
“There are two competing tensions inside the government,” said Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius and lead for the New Suppliers to Government working group. “One of them is the Cabinet Office’s stated commitment to getting more SME involvement. However, the other drive within government is pushing things the other way…
“The implication of that programme is they will reduce the number of people they buy from to a very small amount of very large suppliers,” said Taylor. While this can be an effective way to cut costs through economies of scale, it is not appropriate to every sector, added Taylor.
In the case of IT innovative ideas are coming from smaller companies, which can help reduce government spending through agile processes and open source.
Taylor cited the Ministry of Justice’s Cipher project as an example of how SMEs are being elbowed out of contracts as a result of these conflicting objectives. In March 2011, the MoJ cancelled freelance IT contractors supplied through SMEs and transferred their work to outsourcing company Capita and its £123m Cipher contract.
“The solution that we are proposing is very simple,” said Taylor. “In the private sector, companies of whatever size will purchase from whichever entity makes the most sense. If it’s a commoditised service, buy it from a huge supermarket at commodity prices. If it’s a specialised service that is appropriate for the business, buy it from an SME.”
Stephen Allott, the Cabinet Office’s crown representative for SMEs, has said it will take up to two years for Whitehall to stop excluding small businesses from work they could do more effectively than larger rivals.
Allott was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that meaningful reforms were being rolled out, but that they would take time to be implemented. “There are a lot of things that need to be fixed,” he said.
There is a real risk that the coalition’s laudable aspirations to change the way government works will fall victim to a combination of strong lobbying by the big suppliers and overwhelming forces within the civil service to keep things much as they are, which usually means playing safe – or that is how it is perceived – by continuing to rely on the large suppliers, the so-called systems integrators.
For decades the big companies have had their way and have been paid very well for services of mixed quality. One result of the domination of big suppliers is that inefficiency is endemic. The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude wants government to change and we support him. He’ll need to do more to make change happen, though. Meanwhile the civil service is doing what it does best: keeping the hands of ministers off the steering wheel. Maude is being given so much work that, in his words, it’s difficult to “keep all the plates spinning”.
Many in the Cabinet Office want to support Maude and effect reform. But can they do it when Maude is distracted by having too much work, the big suppliers are doing all they can to keep and expand their existing contracts, and departmental civil servants are confortable in their existing SI relationships?
An example of one SME’s innovative ideas
There is a recession – money needs to be saved – everyone knows that aggregation and standardisation are the paths to follow. It is no surprise that localism, innovation, choice and the SME sector are thrown out of the lifeboat. I have been on both sides of the public procurement equation and know that simplistic solutions rule the roost when budgets dominate the agenda. As an SME I can only – with deep regret – support the view that the mechanics of Government will continue to favour the large and the vociferous – if only on the grounds of risk avoidance.
Two points first and most importantly Government needs to become the intelligent buyer. Real innovation rarely comes from large vendors so support innovative SMEs by using their technology should be a no brainer we all win (except of course the large vendors!) The second point is that IT is following a model all industries end up with where large projects are managed by large companies; to believe otherwise is defying gravity.
“IT” still has in its software an immature product and that has allowed “abuse” by the dominant vendors and their powerful ecosystems. This takes me back to my first point that Government need to be in control of what they are buying into. The construction industry is a good model. The prime contractor along with the architect will work on a plan using the best materials and then pick the best sub contractors – many of them SMEs to do the job. IT has to go this way – eventually!
I think the real question right now is who has responsibility to change the old ways and be the informed buyer by asking the right questions of vendors and looking out for money saving technologies from SMEs?