Speaking up for suppliers…
For our next guest blog in our series covering the Procurement Supply Group we have Susan Love, Head of External Affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland.
Has the Covid crisis made us care more about how government buys the goods and services it needs? Whether the PPE used by the NHS, or the food in our school meals, it seems there is renewed interest in shorter, sustainable supply chains. This, in turn, could enable more Scottish businesses and organisations to win contracts, bringing increased spending power and jobs to local communities.
Sounds simple enough? Not quite. The tangle of red tape facing small suppliers who want to sell to our colleges, councils and hospitals might sound clichéd but is, nevertheless, well documented. To help address this, representatives of business, industry and third sector organisations in Scotland meet several times a year as the Procurement Supply Group (PSG) to share feedback with the Scottish Government.
The core role of PSG is to inform and influence Scottish public procurement policy and practice as these affect suppliers – and this includes any issues facing small businesses. At its most recent meeting, the PSG went through the findings of the government’s own large-scale survey of suppliers. This includes responses from over 1500 suppliers, with the vast majority of responses coming from SMEs. This survey is a treasure trove of data and provides crucial feedback from suppliers, helping us to see where there have been improvements and where challenges remain.
While the PSG regularly discusses the government’s direction of travel on procurement policy, it’s the practical experience of small businesses and voluntary sector organisations bidding for work that is often the centre of discussion, not least the challenges of translating government policy and legislation to a consistently good experience for SMEs, regardless of which part of the public sector they’re selling to. So while the survey did give some signs that suppliers can see improvements in the bidding process, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it also highlighted frustrations:
- Nearly two thirds (63%) of respondents ‘always/often’ or ‘sometimes’ find questions in tenders difficult to understand
- Over half (61%) ‘always/often’ or ‘sometimes’ have difficulty with the timescales of tenders
- Over half of sub-contractors said they weren’t always paid within the expected 30 days
- Lack of support for innovation was a key weakness (identified in other work too)
Many of these findings also chimed with feedback given during the PSG meeting from the Scottish Government’s Director of Procurement and Property, Nick Ford, about the key themes from SME roundtables he’d recently hosted. These were attended by a number of small businesses and third sector bodies nominated by the PSG members and included a rich discussion about what is working well and areas for improvement
Few public contracts could be more important than those for the care of our most vulnerable citizens. Yet those familiar with the debate on social care will be aware of the challenges facing this sector. The PSG meeting was also joined by Catherine Garrod from the Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland (which represents voluntary and not-for-profit providers) who spoke about the independent review of adult social care in Scotland (the Feeley Report) and the implications for providers.
In this area of public spending, providers highlight the need to move away from traditional procurement approaches and develop much more collaborative approach to ‘commissioning’ services. Change here is less about new legislation and more about a fundamental shift in culture and practice, especially at local level.
What next? Well, following the election of a new government, we look forward to seeing the new public procurement priorities from the Scottish Government and to hearing more about plans to address some of these persistent challenges. And I know that the supplier representatives who attend PSG will do everything we can to ensure the new ministers hear our concerns loud and clear.