When is SME policy not a policy? When it is an aspiration

11 November 2011

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13 November 2011 | Adam Leach

Conflicting ambitions in policies and party pledges have left confusion over government targets for SME spend, according to a former central government purchaser.

Colin Cram, founding member of Cabinet Office Central Unit on Purchasing, a forerunner to the Efficiency and Reform Group, believes various publications and position papers give conflicting views as to whether targets are set by spend or number of contracts. He also called for more clarity on whether promoting SMEs in public procurement is a policy or an aspiration.

One of the inconsistencies, cited by Cram, concerns the government’s evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee and its subsequent response to the peers’ report. Giving evidence, a government representative indicated there was an aspiration to award 25 per cent of contracts by number to SMEs. Later, following the committee’s report the government stated that the aspiration was for 25 per cent in value terms.

Cram feels that this inconsistency among others means funding given to SMEs could vary significantly. Cram said that John Collington’s Efficiency and Reform Group had done a lot of good work so far but would like to see government be clearer about what it aims to award to SMEs through public procurement.

In addition he believes coalition policy should work with the wider public sector to develop an overall target, as opposed to just focusing on its own spending pot. In September, a report by Future Purchasing and Henley Business School claimed procurement reform could save the public sector £37 billion this parliament. The report called for “much higher government leadership” across the whole public sector in order to deliver the savings.

Cram also questioned the strength of the government’s motivation to meet the target as it is classed as an “aspiration” rather than a ”policy”. Drawing on his years as a civil servant, he told SM: “If you’re a civil servant in Whitehall you know that an aspiration actually means no policy whatsoever. It’s straight out of  [the TV show] “Yes Minister”, the word ‘aspiration’.”


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