22 August 2002 | Robin Parker
The public sector is under fresh pressure to improve tendering opportunities for small firms after being criticised in a study backed by government procurement advisers.
Almost three-quarters of the 575 firms surveyed by Tenders Direct said they had received no help in supplying to the public sector.
About 60 per cent said the tendering process was too bureaucratic and that finding out information about tenders was hard and time-consuming.
The findings reveal wide concern among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that they are being shut out as government purchasers turn smaller contracts into larger ones.
Tenders Direct criticised the lack of a central clearing house for the £135 billion of contracts that are below £100,000.
All contracts above that level are published in the Official Journal of the European Communities, but these contracts represent just a fifth of public-sector procurement.
The study was backed by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which has recently produced a pair of guides for the private sector to approach the public sector.
However, Tim Williams, managing director of Tenders Direct, said that since the OGC is responsible only for central government, it did not help communication with purchasers from local authorities.
More than half of those polled dealt mainly with councils, compared with 18 per cent that supplied mostly to central government. A quarter had no dealings with either.
"The message needs to get down to the people who sign off the contracts at ground level," said Williams.
"Small companies need to find out who their prospective customers are, and there needs to be a central point for low-cost contracts."
The OGC is considering how to promote its guidance to local authorities and is also developing an online service to inform the private sector about how to sell to the government.
The first phase of the scheme, to be launched with the Small Business Service at the end of the year, will provide basic information and guidance to the private sector.
An OGC spokesman said: "We are currently looking at the options that are available for advertising low-value contracts to SMEs with a view to developing this area of our service early next year."