Last year Sir Francis Maude released a statement saying "We will make it easier for UK SMEs to sell to Government" and promised many reforms to the procurement process such as making PQQs easier to complete for SMEs. He tasked Stephen Allott with giving SMEs a "strong voice at the top table", and since then has said that work is progressing steadily to create the fairer playing field that many small businesses crave.
He has admitted though that the sluggish pace at which it is progressing has meant that many organisations are still unable to engage in tendering for public sector contracts, as they continue to struggle to complete the laborious and lengthy pre-qualification questionnaires and meet the stringent financial requirements. Over the course of the year he has continued to receive complaints from “all over the country”, and one of the most common problems complained about to central government and the wider public sector is the matter of PQQs, which is apparently “one of the top issues that keep coming up”.
Another complaint that he has been receiving is that SMEs are getting increasingly frustrated that they do not have an opportunity to pitch new innovative products and services directly to public sector departments. The Crown Commercial Representative for SMEs agrees that, while e-procurement has progressed and made it possible for “much fairer competition” for commonly requested and standardised items, the problem indeed remains that currently there is no forum to pitch or have “a meeting to explain to a buyer what it is you’ve got and why they might not have thought of buying it”. Allott explained that there are new-premarket engagement practices that do exactly that, enabling SMEs to pitch informally their new innovative products to a panel of buyers. However Allott went on to say, “We can’t guarantee every single one a meeting… but at least it does enable central government buyers to see some of the more innovative things in the marketplace that they might not have known about.”
Allott has said that the original figure of giving 25% of business to SMEs has been backed by ministers who have been motivated by the potential to capture additional value by sourcing more skilfully, including looking at SME suppliers.
In an effort to illustrate some of the progress that has already been made, he made reference to a recent contract award worth £1.1bn to a travel SME based in Yorkshire called Redfern Travel. He went on to say that his biggest challenge moving forward for SMEs is the cultural change that will have to be incited among the 6,000 procurement professionals in central government. Allott said, “It’s my job to speed them up. I come to work every day to try to make them speed up. The scale of what is being undertaken here [is something] we need to be respectful of. There has been good progress recently with new contracts, commitment shown at senior levels and stuff being done differently, [but there is] lots more to do”.