Sopra – a small tech firm in Scotland? Francis Maude gets confused

There’s nothing I like doing more on a sunny weekend than settling down in a darkened room to read a speech given by Francis Maude, the UK’s Cabinet Office Minister with responsibility for public procurement.

Here’s an excerpt from one he gave recently at the Connext Conference in Edinburgh on June 4th , where he talked about various initiatives, including the programme of support for smaller businesses (SMEs) in terms of helping them win more government contracts. Some time ago, Maude cleverly changed the government’s initial target that 25% of all spend would go to SMEs, into an “aspiration” of 25% of government spend including through the supply chain. But they’re still some way away from hitting that.

Never mind, there was a nice local example to talk about for him here. He’s talking about making government services more digital.

“Now we’ve moved on to transactional services, starting with a first wave of 25 exemplars. The first to go live was the new student finance application. It was delivered from Glasgow, thanks to a partnership between the Student Finance Company and Sopra, a small technology firm with offices here in Scotland”.

Well done to Sopra, that small tech firm, with offices in Edinburgh.

But hang on a moment. So that would be this Sopra, we assume? Founded in France in 1968, employing 16,000 people, listed on the French stock market and with a turnover of 1.3 Billion Euros. And more recently, the subject of a friendly merger approach from Steria, the other major French player in this market. As Telecommunications Insight website explains:

“With EUR3.1bn in revenues, 35,000 employees and operations in 24 countries, the entity would become the third or fourth largest player in the competitive French IT services market, excluding revenues from licences and software sales. It will also become a top-10 player in the Western European IT services market”.

Now actually, it is good to see some different IT and outsourcing firms winning government business rather than the usual suspects, and I’m sure Sopra are a great firm. However, Steria are becoming a big favourite with government, so they’re not exactly a radical outsider.

And they’re not exactly ‘small’ or indeed ‘local’, although Sopra do employ 400 people in Scotland. But a black mark against Mr. Maude’s speech writer. We also found previously that some departments were classifying very large firms as SMEs when they declared their SME spend to Cabinet Office – and to be fair, it’s not easy to get it right. But this is another example of why we need to treat the SME spend figures with some caution when the next batch emerges from 1 Horseguards.

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