Public AdministrationWritten evidence submitted by Ask us Drain Services (PROC 36)

The Here and Now Experience with Local Public Procurement in Essex and Suffolk from a Micro Small Business perspective.

Thank you for seeing me at your surgery in Wivenhoe recently, which enabled me to draw your attention to my concerns with the current Public Procurement Market for low value Public Contracts.

As a Small Business in your constituency I recognise growth plays an important part in our economy but fail to understand why it is still one long milestone of bureaucracy for businesses that don’t have Procurement, QS or Legal Departments, but are still expected to achieve the same results as larger companies.

It’s pleasing to know that you are the Chairman for the PASC who are currently making enquiries into the Procurement issues. The Prime Minister assures us he wants to invest “accountable” money for start-up business and SME’s to help pull us out of recession, my concern is the length of time this is taking. A new start up business will come under greater pressure when they themselves have to go through policy building and applying audit trails like my company had too, to enable us to achieve BS EN ISO 9001:2008 Quality Management Accreditation, plus all the other trade related certificates and documentation required JUST to achieve high scoring results at a PQQ tender stage process for a low value contract.

To date, I have found only one contract where simplification was introduced, all other contracts we have bid for or shown an interest in, have required exorbitant man hours trying to understand the Portal, Tender information including difficult questions, all this just to enable us to get through the first stage of PQQ. Why is this, particularly when you consider the contracts were all under the value of £100,000? When bidding for a low value contract the most ridiculous part is the repetitive nature of each individual Contract requesting their own Letter Head References. We have one very worthy client whose reference is very valuable in proving our company is competent and reliable, but repetitive requests for references requested from your most valuable client each time you tender isn’t going down very well. Why do we have to make individual requests to our clients for references each time we want to tender for a contract, surely up to date generic references for all PQQ portals and tendering purposes would be sufficient for a Micro Company.

To date I have found no evidence of reduced red tape, as mentioned by Vince Cable and strongly identified following encouraging research, in the Richard Report by Doug Richard back in “2008” there is still no sign of bringing in a lower entry level for SME’s to competitively compete. We have and still are, spending and wasting considerable amounts of money and time in relation to the actual value of the contracts on offer. Why are we still spending money? Why have things not been simplified, standardised and made more transparent, so we are not spending valuable time and money and in return becoming more cost effective for the Public Sector?

I have documented my own experiences to date to highlight the issues we have faced with the current Public Sector Procurement Market for your consideration.

June–September 2009

The Drainage Industry was heading towards the biggest change in history with private sewers being transferred over to all eight Water Companies. During this period I had a crucial decision to make in my small business, to either take what I can and wind the company down or employ a part time person to help achieve the next level of business and at the same time diversify as much as I possibly could. There were only four of us at this point in the business, but my decision was to face the red tape bureaucracy and employ a suitable candidate to assist me with this daunting challenge.

If I include the next challenge ahead which is currently the ISO14001 certification it will have taken us three years to get through the bureaucratic red tape which I understand is UK Government criteria not European Government criteria, is this correct?

Essex ContractValue under £100,000–2012

This was a Borough Council contract which fell under the heading of Small Works and Maintenance Services. Specifications in the tender included Ditch Clearing, Garden Clearing, small plumbing works but it was also found to include Supply and Servicing of Gym Equipment which had no relation to the contract. This was brought to the attention of the Procurement Officer by another Company and the Tender Documents were withdrawn and resubmitted removing the Gym Equipment section.

There were nine Lots in all to bid for and two of these lots had no specifications to assist in the pricing, it was advised in the tender documents to carry out research into what would need to be supplied for these two Lots. We had to research the specification and descriptions of the work to enable us to calculate and submit our pricing for the bid. Why were no details provided for these two lots? This was very unfair as the existing Contractor had the advantage already knowing the job specifications and the winning bid price which enabled the Company to win the Contract in the first place. We were unable to find any information on the contract and only had four weeks until closing date of the bid, another wasted exercise.

Essex Contract—Value under 100k, 2013

This was a Housing contract we showed an interest in and it was to provide support on an emergency basis for burst water mains. They required us to submit our prices for repair of Copper and Alkathene pipes, but in the 350 page specifications section we found our Insurance would need to cover us for dealing with burst Asbestos pipe work. Not enough information was given in this 350 page document for us to be able to correctly submit the most accurate price to produce a good quality of work and a sensible capability to maintain this for the term of the contract, without the Company failing to meets its demands. The Government will not achieve savings with Public Money by these rewording specifications in contracts or minimal transparency or producing 350 pages of specifications that didn’t relate directly with the contract.

Essex ContractValue under 100k, 2012

A Housing Association I have supported in Essex where our work is for emergency coverage for special needs people who live in their own homes with a carer.

We have supported this local client for four years as a Sub Contractor. The contract was coming to an end and I was asked by my client to assist in the bidding process by providing a schedule of rates that fall under the Plumbing and Drainage sub section of a Building Maintenance Term Contract. Keeping the day to day running of the business stable but paramount to achieve a competitive price for my clients bid, I employed on a temporary basis through an Employment Agency an Estimator and then a Contracts Manager with experience in pricing schedules, this was expensive but the right move at £175.00 to £200.00 a day.

We achieved the deadline, our Contractor received our Schedule of Rates and he submitted his bid. A couple of months later we found out that we are to continue the current contract for a further year as following the selection process the three remaining candidates (my Contractor being one of them) were informed the contract was being withdrawn as the Local Council had identified the current way the tender was written was proving not viable in other County’s.

Suffolk Contractunder £100,000, 2013

The Suffolk Procurement Portal who delivered the Borough Council contract required us to download a program to be able to read and complete the tender documents. The step by step instructions on the logging in to the PQQ stage was very good, but what was missed was a Very large Warning in Red stating that the software would need to be downloaded on every individual work station to be able to enter company information on the electronic PQQ forms.

We lost over 40 hours of work from repeatedly loosing Documents and information entered on the electronic forms until our mistake was identified by the Council’s Procurement Technical Department. We as a VSME don’t have a technical IT Department.

How many Procurement Portals shall I Join?

If we are to keep all current procurement portals where Local Councils can place contracts, could we please have free training sessions made widely available by them. This will enable staff to know how to use the portal BEFORE starting the online, download, upload criteria depending on the Portal format. Rather than trying to learn how to use it DURING the PQQ and Bidding process stage. The current system causes the Stress Policy Risk Assessment to be broken on numerous occasions with no Micro SME Business Support Provider with procurement knowledge that I could find, Yes we welcome a Business challenge but we were left with the blind leading the blind, two left feet scenario to achieve the PQQ requirements, this doesn’t help business growth its just stunts it.

Is BIP Solutions the only current available Procurement Training Provider for Micro Small Businesses to use?

I want a better understanding of the supply chain, my staff and i need training to achieve success in winning contracts and to be able to employ more staff. I contacted Business Link back in 2010 for Procurement assistance but they only had basic literature information and fact sheets. I contacted local Colleges but found no courses available, I contacted COLBEA they couldn’t help me (that was a first!). I contacted Essex University who had run a course but there wasn’t another one in the foreseeable future. Q: Why are there no courses available locally to better educate my staff and I, so we can complete and achieve a viable bid for our Communities rather than “catch you outs or trip ups” that Micro SME’s could succumb because of limited knowledge in the tender documents.

We have set up our company profile on several different Web Procurement Portal sites, each contract tendered for so far has been under a different Portal application process, some set up to reply in return by hardcopy format others by electronic format or electronic and hard copy. Q: If a very small Business runs into difficulty with the electronic submitting because they don’t have an internal IT Department, can the Low Value Contract Procurement Rules allow for a request to the Procurement Officer be granted so the bid can be submitted in paper form to reduce our already now wasted time on an unknown portal which would reduce stress levels from reaching boiling point?

With the above in mind I would ask for your kind consideration in getting to the bottom of why Transparency and Simplification has not already happened for very small Businesses who have the potential to expand and further employ more people and get on with our current objective and priority, which is survival, training, winning small contracts in a faster turnover time, so expanding and most importantly from that Employing which as we know moves the “Little Ships” closer to the battle front in helping to play a part in rescuing the current UK economic crisis, instead of the exhausting time and costs with limited resources being wasted on the current Procurement and Bureaucracy that’s causing a stunting Growth effect in the Micro SME sector.

I have also held a meeting this week with the FSB Regional Manager Iain Wicks in relation to the above and he has agreed to promote the issues I have raised.

I look forward to hearing from you.

March 2013

Prepared 18th July 2013