I’m often told that public sector bodies are not geared up to deal with small and medium sized businesses, and as a result, the tenders they publish are not small business friendly. I think in some cases that is very true, but I honestly think there is a change in attitude towards small businesses, and small businesses can certainly win contracts to deliver public sector services.
About 8 months ago I met a Cabinet Office representative who told me about the Mystery Shopper scheme that Cabinet Office operates. In a nutshell, this initiative enables businesses to flag public sector procurement activity they believe to be unfair or discriminatory in some way to small businesses. The Cabinet Office will then investigate and hopefully changes will be made to the procurement process. But does it work?
The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude last week stated that by mid-February, Cabinet Office had been notified of 151 cases to investigate, of which 111 had been closed and of those, 75% had resulted in a positive outcome (either a change to that particular procurement activity, or to future activities).
I have had first hand experience of this Mystery Shopper service on behalf of one of my clients. I emailed the Mystery Shopper team at 5.30pm, and received a personal response at 6.30am the following morning, supported by a telephone call at 9.15am the same day. The Mystery Shopper team listened to the concerns I had (businesses under three years old were being excluded from the procurement), agreed to investigate, and promised to keep me up to date with their progress. The level of service I received from that team was nothing short of exceptional, I was provided with regular updates, an indicative timescale of their actions and other detail about the Mystery Shopper activity.
In the case I raised, the authority managing the procurement activity did indeed revise the procurement guidance in light of the direct intervention of the Cabinet Office, and my client therefore became able to tender for the contract. The submission put forward is being evaluated currently, but whatever the outcome, the client was pleased that they were able to tender.
So, in my experience, the Government does appear to be taking seriously the potential that smaller businesses have to deliver public contracts. They also appear to be serious about changing procurement practices. And, perhaps most importantly of all, procurement professionals working within the public sector appear to be willing to listen, and respond to the concerns small businesses are raising around procurement. Again, I saw this first hand with a local authority who pro-actively went out to the market and asked small businesses how they could make the procurement process more ‘small business friendly’.
To quote a great songwriter, “The times, they are a changing”