Procurement reform little help for SMEs

The government’s plans to make it easier for SMEs to apply for public sector contracts have been met with frustration by small businesses.

The idea to make public sector deals worth £236 billion more accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was part of a strategy designed to achieve a private sector led economic recovery, but it seems many are unsure of how positive an effect the political intervention will have.

The idea of a new standardised Pre Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) for businesses, which will allow companies to bid for multiple tenders using one form, has been well received in some quarters – but this seems more an acknowledgement of how cumbersome the current form is to fill out than any palpable anticipation of an improvement.

Joanne Varey, deputy managing director of Granby Marketing Services says that the current PQQ process is extremely long winded and time consuming. ‘You are often asked for the same information but in lots of different ways, and almost every time each one has to be carried out from scratch. A PQQ should allow us to be evaluated on key criteria rather than whether we are just good at filling out documents.’

Susan Heaton Wright, company director of Viva Live Music, which provides live music for events, agrees that the current form is a headache to contend with: ‘There have been occasions where we have completed very long, complicated PQQs, where hard copies are required, rather than completing a straightforward online survey. In one instance, for a small scale production in Merseyside, the application took more than one working day to complete, compile and then send out.’

The new form could fall short due to its ‘one size fits all’ nature. ‘If there is a standard PQQ, it will have to be extremely well designed to capture information for a wide variety of business types,’ says Wright. One standard PQQ form could result in even more work and put people off applying for tenders.

Overall, many feel it won’t be any easier for smaller companies to win contracts.

Steve Clarke, managing partner of accountancy firm James Cowper, says: ‘Our experience is that government bodies will go for brands that are known and therefore judged ‘safe’, even if they don’t provide the best value. Then there becomes the self-perpetuation of work to those who already have contracts.’

Varey agrees. ‘In the past we’ve lost out on government contracts purely on the basis of size. Despite being by far the best solution provider, we’ve actually been told we’re ‘not big enough’ to handle some contracts even though the work up for grabs would have equated to less than 5 per cent of our turnover,’ she says.

The overriding feeling is that fighting bigger operators for the paltry contracts that do exist is going to remain a crippling uphill battle for our country’s smaller firms.

See also: Why are smaller businesses still struggling to win government contracts?

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