SMEs – when to choose them and when not

By Ian Makgill

The key to giving business to SMEs is to understand when SME suppliers can meet the needs of government and when it is best not to try and resist the gravitational pull of a large supplier.  

Some of this is obvious.  You wouldn’t expect the government to award banking services or insurance contracts to an SME. On the other hand, there is no real reason why legal services or consulting contracts can’t be provided almost entirely by SMEs, with only a couple of larger providers required for national programmes with multiple sites. In fact, it is a great shame that Government Procurement Service’s (GPS) new tender for consulting services does not utilise the regional model that they’ve previously used for temporary medical staff.

GPS has scored a couple of hits with SMEs, firstly with the appointment of Redfern Travel as the preferred travel management provider and secondly, with the choice to let the G-Cloud IT framework. It may be that Redfern ceases to meet the exact criteria of being an SME once the contract is fully embedded in Central Government, but that’s the whole point, to drive growth through smaller businesses. The G-Cloud framework provides a meaningful opportunity for SME suppliers to sell complex services to government, and may also help government to break their addiction to monolithic, large scale IT projects (as typified by the CSA’s latest IT tender with 90,000 specified requirements.)

Cloud services offer a remarkable opportunity for small teams to serve millions of people. A good example is 37signals, a Chicago web design company that created a project management tool called Basecamp. Its team of 32 staff currently service three million customers.

It is equally important to know when not to try and counter market forces.

Take agency staff.

We’ve been doing some very detailed work in this area, and there is an inexorable move towards using large, national suppliers. These suppliers can provide much more competitive margins and better services and data to public bodies. The market is healthy in terms of competition and there is room for smaller suppliers to become second tier suppliers to some of the national companies. Clearly the option to become a second tier supplier, or to lose their existing business is not good news for smaller suppliers, but with such strong benefits available to public bodies it would make no sense to try and resist developments that are affecting the whole market.

There needs to be a much deeper understanding of the characteristics of contracts that can be fulfilled by SME suppliers and a comprehensive strategy to follow up on that work, and to prevent government issuing restrictive tenders that see SMEs unnecessarily barred from doing business with Government, or spin-out mutuals facing procurement hurdles that are inappropriate to them. Until that strategic work is done, then there is a risk that the appointment of SMEs to government contracts will be haphazard, with a few notable successes and far too many failures.

Ian Makgill is the Managing Director of Govmark, researchers who specialise in government contracting.

Download Govmark’s report into agency staff in local government

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One response to “SMEs – when to choose them and when not

  1. Pingback: Tri-borough mutual plans to save £1m in costs for London councils | Campaign4Change

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