UK Procurement Bill is once in a generation opportunity

posted by Gareth Rhys Williams
6 July 2022

I recently read The Enterprise Network’s report ‘Procurement and Innovation’, which was reported on Supply Management on 31 May.

As the chief commercial officer in charge of government procurement, it won’t surprise you to learn I agree that public procurement can play a crucial role in inspiring and harnessing innovation for the benefit of efficient public service delivery. I also echo the report’s sentiment on the importance of a strong and vibrant SME sector able to compete for and secure public sector contracts, delivering value and innovation for public benefit.

However, I think there were some key areas missed where we have already had some big successes.

I am proud of the great progress made in increasing opportunities for small businesses to bid for government contracts. By working with departments, industry and engaging directly with small businesses we have:

  • Made opportunities more visible via Contracts Finder, a free to use digital platform – 40,960 SMEs logged into this in May 2022 alone.

  • Ensured prompt payment is a priority – excluding those suppliers that fail to demonstrate sound payment practice.

  • Simplified bidding processes with reduced form filling and plain English.

  • Required departments to publish SME Action Plans, detailing upcoming opportunities and how they plan to engage with smaller suppliers.

  • Increased transparency of contract pipelines allowing SMEs and start ups the necessary time to prepare and government the chance for greater market engagement.

These measures are working – the latest SME spend data figures for 2020-21, released at the end of May, show central government spend with SMEs rising for the fourth consecutive year to a record £19.3bn.

I am grateful for the work of the small business crown representative and the SME Panel – an advisory panel of entrepreneurs and business owners, who advise and comment on government policy to make sure SMEs receive the targeted help they need.

The Procurement Bill – now making its way through the legislative process and anticipated to become law next year – sets out a transformative agenda and gives us further opportunities to level the playing field for SMEs, drive economic growth across the UK, and allow the public sector wider access to the first-class skills, innovation and ideas that many smaller firms offer.

The proposed reforms will slash costs and make it easier for all businesses bidding for contracts, particularly those companies with less experience of procurement processes. A single digital platform will hold all of a supplier’s credentials that they need input only once, and ensure new entrants to the market can be added frequently and easily to open frameworks.

A new competitive tendering procedure will give contracting authorities the ability to design and run a procedure that suits the market in which they are operating. This will, for example, allow them to contract with partners to research, develop and eventually buy a new product and service – in a single process. It will also allow contracting authorities to use product demos alongside written tenders, to get a proper appreciation of solutions being offered by suppliers.

And the new rules will make clear that buying innovation does not apply just to buying something brand new but that it can be about developing an existing product to meet new requirements

The new requirements to publish contracting authorities’ procurement pipelines and processes will make it easier for innovative new providers to gear up to compete for public contracts, including forming consortia, and help reduce the reliance on the same group of large companies.

The bill will ensure that prompt payment flows down the supply chain – enabling SMEs to benefit from 30 day payment terms on a broader range of public sector contracts. We will create tailored procurement processes to make it easier for us to buy innovative solutions – covering the whole process from research and development through to buying the finished product, permitting the testing of innovative products and prototypes before making a contract decision.

As the bill progresses through Parliament we look forward to continuing our engagement with the SME supplier community to ensure we seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

 Gareth Rhys Williams is chief commercial officer for the UK government

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