UK Government SME announcements part 1 – the Contracts Finder

This is the first in our series looking at the range of announcements made last Friday by the UK Government relating to how smaller organisations might be helped to take a bigger slug of the public sector's £200 billion annual third party 'procurement' spend.

Contracts Finder will be the repository for both contract opportunities and tender documentation across UK central Government (it doesn't cover local authorities, heath etc.)  It's clearly not the finished article, so we can't fully assess the site at the moment; for instance, new opportunities under £100K are not going onto the Contract Finder until April – Supply2Gov continues until then. So at the moment, Contracts Finder is picking up OJEU advertisements for larger contracts from TED (the EU site) and also contains information about contract documentation and contracts awarded as per previous transparency announcements.

On the positive side, the site is clear and pretty easy to use.  The layout is good, and the basic fields to narrow your search are sensible.

However, I have some concerns about the search engine / process.  I searched for ‘procurement consulting’ within 200 miles of London, and a value range of £10K to £2M.  I got back a strange and rather wonderful selection of 29 apparently random contracts – from taxi services to software, from press cuttings to recruitment services; from cryptographic work to provision of a ‘model of the electricity dispatch from GB power generators’.

And if you put a value range in, it doesn’t report all the contracts with a ‘no value’ in that field. So I discovered that taking out my £10K to £2M range increased the number of responses from 29 to 66. Then clearing the London distance criterion got me 304, bringing in a large number of non-UK OJEU ads. These did seem to be ‘consulting’ related but not ‘procurement’.

This doesn’t matter too much now - remember, at the moment this is going to come up with contracts awarded or documentation, not new opportunities. But if the same thing happens once live opportunities are on the database, there’ll be some annoyed SMEs around. I suggest a look at the search engine and some more sophisticated tools might be necessary. For instance, we need a Google type advanced search where you can stipulate ‘consulting’ AND ‘procurement’ responses only (not either  /or). To be fair, this is phase 1 and the site itself does talk about future enhancements including better search capabilities.

I still have one underlying nagging fear about this whole thing though.  If the Contracts Finder  ‘succeeds’, and all these opportunities can be easily identified, by hundreds or thousands of potential suppliers many of whom then submit bids; how on earth are already stretched procurement functions going to cope with the workload?

Automation is part of the answer; but my fear is that will move us towards VERY ‘hard’ yes / no type questions (easily automated) in the tender documents, or lotteries and ballots.  That’s even before we consider the idea of abolishing PQQs which was trailed last week in the announcement.  As we said then, I just don’t understand at the moment how that will work, but I intend to ask Cabinet Office for further explanation.  Hundreds of suppliers submitting full formal tenders would appear to be even less effective for everyone involved than those organisations submitting PQQs, and then a very small number submitting full tenders.

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Voices (3)

  1. Tim Williams:

    How are procurement officers going to cope with the workload? Judging by previous experience probably quite badly, I fully expect that they’ll do the complete opposite of what they should do.

    What do I think they should do? Write a clear description of what they actually want and put it in the notice on Contracts Finder or the OJEU, or wherever else they publish it. Suppliers aren’t stupid and nor do they enjoy filling in pre-qualification questionnaires or tender documents. So if the contracting authority makes it quite clear what they want and what the relevant qualification criteria are, then most suppliers (ok, a few are stupid) will realise that a) what’s required isn’t what they supply, or b) they realise they’re not qualified, as a result they won’t even bother asking for the PQQ or tender.

    What normally happens though is that the procurement officer fearing that they’re about to be inundated, publish a very vague description, which means that the suppliers don’t know what’s really wanted and so they apply ‘just in case.’ What’s worse is that if the documentation supplied with the PQQ still doesn’t explain what’s required (very common) they’ll fill that in as well, which means that everybody wastes time responding to and evaluating responses, when really that supplier doesn’t provide what’s ultimately required.

  2. M S:

    Just a couple of small points, first the new requirements do cover the NHS, not just central government. Secondly, nobody seems to be mentioning that this is simply another layer of beauracracy being foisted onto public sector buyers by the very same govt. that then criticizes them for being overly beauracratic.

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