The Government’s decision to scrap the charge for online public contract portal Supply2.gov.uk is being hailed as the first step towards a more free and open public procurement system.
Earlier this month the fee was dropped on searching for contracts worth under £100 000. This had previously cost businesses approximately £99-£180 a year. This may not seem much, but for business representation body the Forum of Private Business the decision is an important move towards allowing small businesses, including design groups, free and easy access to public contracts.
According to the FPB, the Supply2.gov.uk move is the first concrete policy change to stem from the October 2008 Glover Review, led by Anne Glover, which was commissioned by the Government to see what could be done to make it easier for SMEs to supply to the public sector. Among the recommendations made in the report were that all tender documents should be issued electronically by 2010, with those thought to be particularly suitable for SMEs flagged up. It also called for standardisation of qualification criteria across Government departments, and for all departments to report annually on how much work they are giving to SMEs.
The Glover Review called for most of these recommendations to come into force by the start of 2010, but so far, freeing up lower-value contracts on Supply2.gov.uk is the only policy change to have come into force. ‘It now looks like things will be wrapped up with the Glover Review towards the middle-to-end of next year,’ says Matthew Goodman, the FPB’s policy representative.
Goodman says, ‘What we ultimately want is full transparency and openness of public-sector contracts. It is key to make Government behave like a private business, and shop in the same way that a business would shop. We want a situation where they are finding the best provider, rather than just turning to the one they know.’
Goodman says the FPB also wants to stamp out practices such as ‘bundling’, where a group of contracts is given out in one package to a private project manager, who then divvies up the remaining sub-contracts in a non-public manner. ‘We want to make sure all the information is out there,’ Goodman says.
Tim Williams, managing director of procurement systems provider Millstream and the FPB’s advisor on public-sector tendering, highlights two key issues that need to be addressed to make the tender system more efficient.
The first is standardising pre-qualification information, as highlighted in the Glover Review. Goodman agrees, saying, ‘If you’re going to have to fill out 90 pages of a PQQ document at least make it worth something.’
The second is that Government procurement staff should be better educated. Williams says, ‘There are major gaps in knowledge which result in ultra-conservative behaviour. While some public procurement staff are excellent, there are many who do not have the necessary skills, experience or knowledge.’
Neither Goodman nor Williams go as far as agreeing with ideas mooted by Associate Parliamentary Group for Design and Innovation research, previously reported in Design Week, that the current tender process could be dismantled and a situation imposed where Government departments approach consultancies directly.
‘My personal view is that this would be a disaster,’ says Williams. ‘It is difficult enough for suppliers to identify potential opportunities when there is a requirement to publish them. Take this requirement away and it would be who knows whom, rather than any meritocratic system of awarding contracts.’
FPB advice on winning public contracts:
- Source reliable information on available contracts from portals such as Supply2.gov.uk
- Fill out forms accurately, including PQQs. A sample PQQ can be found at http///www.ogc.gov.uk/tools___services_pqq_4728.asp
- Try to build a relationship with the buyer. It may help to aim for smaller contracts first to build up contacts