Cabinet Office details supplier complaints about public sector procurements

Out-Law News | 09 Jan 2013 | 4:12 pm | 2 min. read

Businesses made more than 300 complaints about bad public sector procurement practices in the past 18 months, the Cabinet Office has said.

In a 'Mystery Shopper' exercise operated by the Government department 81% of the complaints made by businesses related to the procurement process, it said in a new report. (8-page / 164KB PDF) The remainder of complaints related to problems with bureaucracy, contract management, technology and systems and cases not being taken on.

The Cabinet Office said that the most common complained-about issue from the procurement process concerned "pre-qualification questionnaires" (PQQs) that prospective suppliers had to fill out and "particularly" with regards the way the "contracting authorities" assessed suppliers' "financial capacity to perform a contract". More than a third (38%) of all the complaints raised about the procurement process concerned PQQs, it said.

Businesses also commonly complained about public authorities' procurement strategies, according to the report the Cabinet Office has published. Of all the complaints raised about the procurement process, 28% were in relation to contracting bodies' strategies. The Cabinet Office said many businesses felt the authorities had failed to sufficiently engage with them from the outset.

"We have seen a number of cases where procurement strategies were lacking pre-procurement engagement, which inadvertently led to periods of clarification, with technical issues being raised by bidders or changes being made to documentation, which in turn made the procurement process longer than necessary," the Cabinet Office's report said. "Pre-competition engagement, prior to the advertising of requirements, would have prevented supplier issues by allowing them the opportunity to raise and work through any queries and thus shape the tender."

Other concerns were raised about the use of framework agreements, which allow buyers to obtain services they want from a select list of pre-approved suppliers without having to go through an extensive tendering and procurement process.

SMEs in particular complained about the "design" of the frameworks, the Cabinet Office said. The department recently announced that it had scrapped plans to use some existing ICT frameworks, and that in future Government departments would only be able to establish framework agreements if they can show it will "explicitly deliver against key strategic needs" and if suppliers "of all sizes" are given a "reasonable chance" of winning work through the system.

The Cabinet Office said that in 78% of "closed" cases where there had been 'Mystery Shopper' complaints there had been a "positive outcome", which included changes being made to either live procurements or future procurement practices.

In a statement, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary Chloe Smith said that the Government wanted to make it easier for SMEs to win public sector contracts.

"In the past the playing field was stacked against SMEs winning public sector contracts and public procurement seemed as if it was designed to serve the needs of procureaucrats not business," Smith said. "This Government is determined to change all that and to strip out unnecessary process from public procurement. We have made good progress already but there’s still a long way to go and in this global race our businesses need all the help they can get."

"Mystery Shopper gives SMEs a chance to have their voices heard anonymously and to raise concerns about the bureaucratic barriers which stand in their way. Stripping these out will make a difference to business, and to the growth of our economy. We want more businesses to use this service to raise complaints so we can name and shame the parts of the public sector still doing procurement in the clunky old-style," she added.