The government is open for business

Emma Jones, the new small business crown representative, looks at what the public sector is doing to get more business for small and medium sized enterprises

During his tenure as Minister for Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock MP set a target of directing one third of central government spend to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The £1 in every £3 target equates to around £15 billion worth of contracts to be spent with small business by 2020. To any small business, that spells opportunity, which explains why small business groups and bodies met the Minister’s commitment in 2015 with a warm welcome.  

At the time, Hancock said: “This is such an amazing opportunity for the country’s diverse and innovative small businesses, and today I urge them to get stuck in. From computers to uniforms – there are so many opportunities for small businesses to work with us, and I want to see more of them providing value for money for the taxpayer and benefiting from our spending.”

It was this vision that I brought into and was delighted to accept the role of SME Representative for Crown Commercial Service in the Summer, to work with government to focus on the target and ensure it can be met.  

Outlining priorities
I have been in post for five months and confirmed key priorities for the first year. The three priorities, which will address in turn, are: Simplify; Promote; and Innovate.

Simplify: speeding up the time it takes for small businesses to complete bids, especially in the area of mandatory information. At the moment, there is basic information that has to be completed every time a small business responds to a tender – I’m working to find a solution where a small business supplier can focus more time on the content of the proposal - such as what they can deliver and at what price, and less on refreshing information that remains the same.  

Promote: many small businesses are not yet aware of the opportunity to sell to government and a big part of my role is to raise awareness with sectors such as professional services, food & drink, creative design etc where government is looking to buy, and small businesses have the products and services to sell. I’m doing this through regional events, monthly webinars with government buyers, producing a guide on selling to the public sector, and regular media activity. There’s also a checklist below which is ideal for sharing with small businesses you know who might be interested in bidding.  

Innovate: this is more about pre-procurement and is focused on connecting buyers with technologies and solutions they may not yet know exist. At this stage, suppliers are not guaranteed a contract but at least it opens up a conversation with buyers on potential future needs. 

Having heard from small business owners, these are the three areas that I believe need the greatest attention. They build on strong work in the areas of payment, championing procurement, and ensuring the voice of small business is taken into account. 

When it comes to prompt payment, government has done a huge amount of work to meet targets of paying 80 per cent of suppliers within five days and the remainder in 30 days on undisputed invoices. The Prompt Payment Code is also having a positive impact in encouraging Tier one suppliers to follow the same conduct.  

SME Champions
There is a commitment from central government departments to reach the spend target. A group of SME Champions meet regularly to measure spend levels overseen by Crown Commercial Service and share ideas for improvement and best practice.  The champions recognise that small businesses can deliver contracts at speed, complete with innovation, and on budget. There’s a running roster of case studies on the CCS website showing the savings being made in sourcing from small suppliers -

The voice of small business
Small businesses are also having their say. A dedicated SME Panel is bring brought together, made up of entrepreneurial founders who will share their own experiences, whilst inputting into government plans.  

I will continue to meet small business at the regional roundtables in Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol and London. To complement this, small businesses can also access webinars, with the first now available for replay as a general introduction to selling to the public sector, with future webinars looking at the buying requirements of G-Cloud, Department for Transport etc. Details of regional roundtable and webinars are all available on the page and shared via @smecrownrep on twitter.  

This activity is firmly focused on achieving the target set by the previous Minister for Cabinet Office. Rest assured, there are many people committed to making it a reality.    
Checklist for small business 
Here is my checklist for small businesses looking to make the most of the opportunity to sell to government. Firstly, have a plan. Decide ‘how’ you want to sell to government. There are two key routes; sell direct through sourcing contracts and pitching (more on that below), or opt to go via Tier One suppliers. Tier one suppliers are big firms like IBM that are running national contracts, and who often rely on smaller (Tier Two) suppliers to deliver. The answer to this will depend on the sector you’re in. If you’re in catering, you might decide selling to food giant Sodexo is the quickest route to results, and in construction becoming part of the supply chain of a big business is the norm. 

Secondly, source contracts. The single source of government contracts valued at above £10,000 is the online platform Contracts Finder. Right now, government is looking for everything from toiletries to tax advice, marketing services to interior design – all for SMEs to bid for from this one website.

Register on the site and search for ‘Open’ opportunities. It will then direct you to other procurement portals from which you can build your proposal. If you sell digital services, G-Cloud is the platform for you. Over £1 billion in deals have been carried out via G-Cloud (the majority with SMEs) and it’s the best route into government work if you’re selling web services, software, coding or digital design. G-Cloud contains proposals from both government and Tier One suppliers. 

Additionally, it is important to understand the buyer. Tune into the SME Rep webinar series to hear from buyers across central government departments as to what they’re looking for in contracts.   

Be tender ready. In completing proposals you’ll come across requests for health and safety policies, equality statements, insurance levels and proof of accounts. It’s wise to get ahead by having these documents in one place so you can upload and speed up the application process.  

Lastly, ask for feedback. This applies whether you’re successful or not with your bid. Asking for feedback will help you understand buyer expectations and be more prepared for the next opportunity. With the public sector, you may not win the first bid (which can come as a surprise to small businesses used to winning work in the private sector) but dedicating the time to pitching for more contracts, and getting to know buyers, will hopefully result in a first success – which sets you on course for more. If you have a bad experience in the procurement process, use the Mystery Shopper service to anonymously file a complaint. 

Emma Jones is SME Rep for Crown Commercial Service. The role is one day per week. For the remainder of the week Emma continues to run her business, Enterprise Nation.

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