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What the Procurement Act 2023 means for small agencies

 by Lisa Smith, Operations Manager at Pier

As Avril Lavigne once famously sang, “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?” 

It’s fairly unlikely that she was singing about the trials and tribulations of the tendering and procurement process for SME’s, but you never know. It’s certainly enough to make even the most seasoned professional want to jump on a skateboard and join her. 

As an integrated communications agency, pitching for a mixture of public and private sector work, we are not unfamiliar with procurement processes. We understand the importance of measured and fair procurement of services. And we work hard to ensure we have all the right policies and certification in place that demonstrate we are a robust business.

However, a large part of the process of late seems to be regurgitating the same information in a slightly different way, to a different set of standards every time. If you are reading this as someone who also regularly tenders for business, I am confident you will know exactly what I mean. 

Being able to evidence your compliance with UK law, your environmental, social and governance credentials and your policies around data protection and cyber security should absolutely be a part of the process, even for an SME. Especially when an organisation will be spending a sizeable amount of their budget with the winning agency.  

But wading through different framework guidelines, appendices, evaluation matrices, Government Procurement Policy Notes and scoring methodology each time, just to complete the Standard Qualifying Questions is hugely time consuming, and has little to do with an agencies ability to actually deliver the creative or strategic work. 

Popular procurement platforms like Proactis allow bidders to save answers to a set of Standard Qualifying Questions along with accompanying evidence at organisation level within a ‘Vendor profile.’ Yet buyers often duplicate these questions within their SQQ’s with very subtle differences, meaning that the bidder needs to answer them all again in a different way, in a separate part of the platform, providing alternative evidence. Often these can exceed 90 questions – a time consuming piece of work for an agency that may not have dedicated a Quality Assurance or Compliance Officer on staff, falling to the MD or another member of the Senior Management team. And all this is even before the technical or creative responses have been written. 

Additionally, we are seeing an increasing trend for bidders to be registered on a specific supplier or procurement platform, at a financial cost to them. This is often at pre-qualifying question stage even before they know if they are through to tender stage or not, making competing for these projects out of the question for many smaller agencies. 

If a buyer marks their tender opportunity as ‘suitable for SME’s’ then they should make sure that it is. This means giving some thought to the required compliance standards, levels of certification and nature of evidence required at Standard Qualifying Question/ Pre-Qualifying Question stage and whether they are realistic (either financially or otherwise) for an SME. This should include questions about whether the bidder can commit to a paid registration to a supplier platform or specific levels of certification / compliance and insurance should they be awarded the tender, with realistic time scales for these to be achieved following that stage, before the work commences. 

The Procurement Act 2023 (expected to go live in October 2024) appears to be a positive piece of legislation for SME’s which should at least simplify the way we tender for business in the public sector (including utilities) and give smaller agencies a fairer crack at things. It mentions a central digital platform for suppliers to register and store their details so that they can be used for multiple bids, and see all opportunities in one place. It promises simplified bidding processes, making it easier to bid, negotiate and work in partnership with the public sector.    

Fantastic! We hope. 

We (and countless other small agencies) welcome the news of this Act and wait with baited breath to see if it delivers. After all – there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you win a tender. In the meantime…. where did I put my skateboard?