The challenge of public sector procurement

images (118)The Government set itself an ambitious target in 2010, to ensure that 25% of Government contracts would be awarded to SME’s. They did this because it is widely recognised that the most sustainable and largest number of jobs are created through the SME sector. As I wrote yesterday, one of the weaknesses of this approach was that the Small to Medium Sized Enterprise sector extends from one many sole trader businesses (technically micro enterprises) to 250 employee, £250M turnover Medium Sized enterprises. Whilst it may be unreasonable to expect large amounts of this business to be awarded to sole traders, if it all goes to large-ish Medium Sized enterprises, the benefit to the types of businesses most likely to increase new jobs will be modest. In a place like Brighton & Hove, about 90% of the businesses employ less than 10 people each. However statistics only tell part of the story.

When the same incoming Government slammed on the brakes as far as public sector head count is concerned, one of the early casualties within one large public sector agency that my business was already working with was their established and experienced procurement team. Many years experience went in one week, leaving the people who were forced to pick up their work and ourselves as a supplier with an enormous mess on our hands. It took around 18 months for the business to return to previous levels, partly as the other early casualty was the procurement itself.

Another public sector agency which as yet we have not managed to ‘sell our services to’ may well have had its own challenges, and if so the recent experiences we have had would explain some of the reasons. When we discovered that there were prospects for selling to this agency we made contact with what appears to be the right department. At first we were told they did not operate in that way. However we persevered. Then we were told that the Summer was a busy time for their department and could we wait until the rush was over. Subsequent phone calls went unanswered. Then we tried emails and even leaving a few answer phone messages. Finally on one of the attempts to get through the switchboard operator explained that although she had been able to speak to the department concerned, that she could not put me through because it is a sales call. I contained most of my frustration and she explained that she had been advised that we should register on the organisations website. I was left frustrated and embarrassed in equal measure. Perhaps had I been bright enough to check, or had they explained this 14 weeks earlier I would have got further forward. However that is not the end of the story.

I visited the website as advised. However I could not find any mechanism for registering (although if we were an existing supplier, there was a mechanism for updating our bank account details). There was however a message system, so I sent a brief message. I explained we wanted to supply the agency in question and could they help me. I got a prompt response which in itself did not answer the question (it actually pointed me back to the same website) but it did provide the name and telephone number of the person who responded. I rang this person and after something of a challenge spoke to him. He explained that when the organisation needed to buy a service such as ours, a member of staff sought out 3 possible suppliers and they awarded the contract to the cheapest (not actually the best criteria, but that is another matter) and added the successful company to their suppliers list. Presumably thereafter they have all of the suppliers they need.

Hopefully I don’t need to raise my voice in this blog, but that is not what the Government or I would call an open and accountable procurement process. As a Micro Enterprise, we have to avoid upsetting what could be a very lucrative source of business. However this is not the way in which the Governments lofty ambitions will be achieved.


About ianchisnall

I have a passion to see public policy made accessible everyone who want to improve the wellbeing of their communities. I am interested in issues related to crime and policing as well as in policies on health services and strategic planning.
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