UK Government “SME action plans” – are procurement teams taking this seriously?

Alongside the procurement strategy published last week for Whitehall, we saw a renewed focus on what government can do to help smaller organisations (SMEs, voluntary sector etc) win more work from the public sector.

Now I’m told by people on the inside that Ministers, right up to the PM, are serious about this issue. And we don’t doubt that.  But we wonder whether that is being tempered with reality procurement now they are in power and understand better how things work. Because the departmental action plans for SMEs which were published last week are, on the whole, disappointing, and some give off a flavour of departments saying “do we really have to do this”?

They’re available here, except for Defra, which is a ‘dead’ link. (Does that mean I’m the first person to actually try and read their plan by the way)?

But we’ve had a quick look at all of them and the winner, by some distance, of the Spend Matters “Small is Beautiful” trophy (a 3 inch tall statue of Francis Maude, carved out of a parsnip) is ...  drum roll please maestro...  the Department of Transport. Honourable mentions go to HMRC and Ministry of Justice.

I’m not altogether surprised DfT are so good here – they don’t often get the plaudits in Whitehall procurement, but in a number of areas including sustainability, they’ve been public sector leaders for many years. Well done to them - their plan has clearly got some thinking behind it and some interesting ideas, not just the ones that look like Cabinet Office has said to everyone “why don’t you put in something about ....”.

They obviously started drafting it a little while ago which helps; here are three of the ideas outlined.

  • Introduce a central procurement enquiry point and publicise the number, by 29 April 2011.
  • Work to attract niche suppliers who may be able to partner with bigger outsourced service providers to deliver the Theory Test contract for the Driving Standards Agency (DSA). DfT plans to hold a pre-competitive event to explain the opportunities... This will be followed up by one to one discussions at which SMEs will be able to put forward their ideas for alternative solutions.
  • Outline opportunities planned for the forthcoming twelve months by holding an annual DVLA supplier forum which SMEs will be invited to attend. The forum will be free of charge

Some of the Departments have obviously knocked their plan together in a spare half hour just before the deadline for publication.  Education takes a slightly ‘hurt’ tone that says “we love SMEs already so don’t really need to do much more”.  And given how much I know MOD have done over the years in this precise area, their plan is very light compared to Transport, although I’m told there will be more in their forthcoming White Paper on defence industry issues.

The other point of note is the issue that our insightful commenter Final Furlong spotted last week.  The terminology has subtly changed over time. In Maude’s statement, it is no longer ‘awarding contracts’ or ‘spending money’ – it is now “doing business with”.  And a number of the plans now refer to SMEs in the supply chain rather than as first tier providers. Now that may be the only pragmatic route for departments like DWP and defence. But is this a further watering down of the 25% to SMEs ‘commitment’, which we’ve already seen become an aspiration, and an average across time and across departments? We’ll look at that issue from a different perspective tomorrow.


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Voices (3)

  1. Woodbine:

    It seems extraordinary that Buying Solutions doesn’t get a mention in this exercise, either as a subset of the Treasury or with its own submission.

  2. Graeme Johnstone:

    I can only assume that the writer didn’t look at what Scotland’s done in this area. With something like a 7 year head-start They’re miles ahead – Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office’s SME recommendations are remarkably similar (almost identical) to one that the Scots published a few years back. Come on Whitehall – don’t let the Scots take the lead on yet another element of public service!

  3. Final Furlong:

    “Small is Beautiful” trophy (a 3 inch tall statue of Francis Maude, carved out of a parsnip).

    Sublime, truly sublime.

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