Small businesses have long complained about the bureaucracy of public sector tenders, but have reforms made a difference?
The amount of time spent filling out pre-qualification questionnaires is a common complaint from SMEs, specialist and main contractors alike.
D-Drill managing director Julie White voices an often-heard grievance against the dreaded forms.
“Everyone in the industry has been looking at a way to solve this because, in our case, we can spend more time filling in the PQQ than it actually takes to do the job sometimes!” she explains.
This is not a problem being ignored by the government though, it is one the Cabinet Office is taking very seriously particularly with regard to SMEs.
The first action the government took was to develop and implement PAS 91 last year, which is a standard set of PQQs relevant to construction tendering.
This was developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the British Standards Institute and the industry and is intended to be used across government departments for construction procurement.
Although PAS 91 is a step in the right direction, there are still fundamental flaws with the document that will prevent its practical take up according to the Electrical Contractors’ Association head of safety and environment Paul Reeve.
“The nature of PAS 91 is that it’s meant to be something you can be assessed on at any time of the year and when you’ve been successfully assessed and answered those questions people can see you meet these criteria so you can move forward to project specific questions,” he says.
“Unfortunately some project specific questions have crept into PAS 91 and it ruins the time independent nature of it,” he says. “The flaws that were built into it when it was produced prevent its practical take up, which is a shame because it’s there to help SMEs and potentially it could be a great help to them.”
Mr Reeve worked with BIS to develop PAS 91, and is one of its biggest supporters, but he understands the flaws need to be addressed in order for it to become successful and fulfil the requirements it was created for.
“In the absence of PAS 91 no one would know what good looks like, and there would still be any amount of take on what is a good PQQ question. It was a free for all before PAS 91 and it has already had an effect in the supply chain to highlight what good looks like so has been immensely useful,” he says.
Aside from introducing PAS 91, the government has also taken further steps to specifically help SMEs. In February this year it announced that all central government procurement under the threshold of approximately £100,000 was seeking to eliminate the use of PQQs.
This was specifically intended to address Ms White’s complaint regarding the disproportionate nature of PQQs compared to the contract value and according to the Cabinet Office, 14 out of 17 departments have already eliminated PQQs for contracts below the threshold.
When SMEs find PQQs are overly bureaucratic or confusing the Cabinet Office also offers a mystery shopper service where SMEs can flag problems to be investigated.
Crown representative for SMEs Stephen Allott champions their cause in government. “The government has started to make big changes to support SMEs, but we need to know from SMEs on the ground. We need to know how the changes are starting to bite, and where they’re not, why not.
“The mystery shopper service is a simple and easy way to do this – any SMEs who come across a tender they don’t understand, or where they think the procurer could be more transparent should use the service to tell us even more about what needs to change,” he explains.
Results released in early November show that 85 per cent of cases reported to the mystery shopper service have resulted in direct action to change the procurement process, according to the cabinet office, and PQQs were still the most common problem.
But government, although very large, is by no means the only procurer of construction work. “Government has been very helpful in telling its various departments that they have to use PAS 91 but unfortunately the issue in the UK is way beyond government procurement, it goes into local authorities, which is a major source of PQQ grief for SMEs, and there is then the private sector,” says Mr Reeve.
So what can SMEs do themselves?
“There is help in the market place for SMEs on PQQS, particularly around health and safety, which is still the main event,” says Mr Reeve. He recommends SMEs look at joining group assessments such as Safety Schemes in Procurement, which is supported by the HES and recognised by many of the main assessments such as Constructonline, CHAS and Exor.
“SSIP fosters mutual recognition between these schemes and means if you join one, you will most likely get full if not partial recognition from the others without having to fill out their forms. This can save a lot of time and money.”
Mr Reeve also recommends SMEs talk to their trade associations, who can guide them through any confusing or difficult forms, stay focused when filling out the forms and even point out to clients who are asking a lot in terms of PQQs that there are recognised schemes out there which will probably cover many of their questions already.
Another option used by Ms White is Builder’s Profile, a web-based service which allows construction companies of any size to fill out PQQs online and keep them constantly updated. The information is stored securely online and can be accessed and distributed in the appropriate format when companies are tendering for work.
“We’ve cut down the time we take filling in PQQs massively, we believe it’s around 80 per cent,” says Ms White. “The time D-Drill saves on filling out PQQs, we can give back in cost reduction on the job to our customers.”
Builder’s Profile is supported by trade bodies such as the National Specialist Contractors Council and contactors including Kier Group.
The most important advice for SMEs is to seek help where and when they come across problems either from their trade association, the Cabinet Office or from schemes such as SSIP and Builder’s Profile.
“PQQs require an Education on both sides, they always have and always will,” concludes Mr Reeve.