Stephen Allott – standing up for the poor, downtrodden SME… (part 1)

As the UK’s Cabinet Office “Crown Commercial Representative” for smaller firms (SMEs ), Stephen Allott has a pretty thankless task really – representing the interests of smaller firms in terms of how they do business with the public sector.

Stephen Allott

Thankless, because even if we saw a huge increase in procurement spend going to SMEs, most small firms will still feel they could or should get more business from the public sector.  And doing this at a time when cost saving is top of every public organisation’s agenda, which tends to favour larger, aggregated bulk purchasing type deals, makes his task even harder.

A barrister by training, he became a successful entrepreneur in the technology industry, with links to the Cambridge University Entrepreneurs programme.  Coming into this role last February, he caused a few eyebrows to be raised when he admitted that he “kept my firms away from public tenders” because they were so unfriendly for smaller firms.

But he seemed pretty cheerful when I met him in the Cabinet Office in the run up to Christmas.

We started by talking about the Innovation Launch Pad, something he and his team are (rightly, we feel) proud of – not just the success in putting a range of interesting smaller firms in front of potential government buyers, but also how they did it, getting the whole programme going very quickly through the use of social media.

“The first ever Twitter launch of a Government initiative” as Allott puts it. Of the nine firms who were the “finalists” in the programme, three have so far won business with the public sector and others are getting involved as participants in wider supply chains into the sector.

Will he do it again? Maybe, but attention is more focused now on getting Departments to take action and hold similar events or processes to encourage innovative suppliers.  I asked whether he felt Departments are positive about this?

"Some are - for instance, MOD have done a lot over the years, although their profile doesn’t always suit SMEs – but they are also positive  about promoting SMEs in their supply chains. Health have done good work, and DfT get it. Then elsewhere, let's just say there’s a "spectrum of interest""!

He’s keen to promote examples of SMEs providing real value – the recent win for Redfern Travel in the national Government Procurement Service (GPS) hotel booking contract is obviously a feather in the SME cap. “Getting full value from the marketplace” is his key objective, removing the barriers for smaller firms and encouraging the best – and it’s hard to argue with those aims.

Allott has had input into the design of tenders such as the current ConsultancyOne GPS professional services framework – although he was surprised when I told him that there was still a “how big is your firm” question in that PQQ! (That got withdrawn very shortly after our meeting actually, as we reported here). But his role is to look at draft tenders from an SME perspective, which should be a valuable exercise.

We'll have more from our discussion in part 2, including Allott’s views on the 25% target for SME spend and his views on the Supplier Feedback Service.

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