10 April 2003 | Robin Parker
A 31-page questionnaire sent to firms hoping to work on a major procurement training initiative has been branded "intimidating" and "over the top".
One potential applicant said it would take two full days to answer the 64 questions and to write up to 40 separate attachments to complete the London Development Agency's (LDA) pre-tender vetting document.
An advertisement in SM last month invited companies to apply to run a programme of research, consultancy and training for the LDA's Procurement Development Programme.
The initiative aims to help small firms, particularly those from ethnic minorities, to develop their procurement skills.
But one purchasing specialist told SM: "You might expect to get more detailed questions at the time of tender, but not to this scale.
"Many public-sector agencies have dropped third-degree questioning on the grounds that small businesses find it intimidating and potentially an invasion of commercial privacy."
John Scowen, chairman of the Society of Purchasing Officers In Local Government (Sopo), said the LDA was being unfair on small businesses, which Sopo is trying to help win tenders.
"The LDA has gone over the top and I think it will have problems getting small to medium-sized enterprises to reply," he said.
The LDA would not comment on why it had structured the questionnaire in this way, but insisted applicants could e-mail them with comments or queries.
Applicants hoping to get on the preferred supplier list would have to provide documents that include full details of every director, partner, associate and senior manager of their company, detailed experience of all potential staff that will work on the project, and health and safety and risk assessment policies.
It also asks for audited accounts for the past three years, including balance sheets, turnover statements and auditor's reports.
Three years' worth of accounts used to be a requirement of all such pre-tender assessment until the rules were relaxed last year to encourage small firms and newer companies to bid.
The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) guidance for public-sector purchasers now suggests asking firms merely to prove they are financially stable.
An OGC spokesman said all public-sector agencies were being "strongly urged" to award contracts on quality rather than on the size of the organisation, in line with the European Commission's recommendations.
"It is particularly ironic that the LDA appears to be hindering small to medium-sized enterprises from bidding for an initiative that will ultimately teach them all about procurement," he said.
He added that any SMEs unhappy with what agencies expect of them should contact the OGC, which can act on the company's behalf.