By Phil Adams

How can the common pitfalls in the tendering process be avoided and where can SMEs gain a better understanding of both the documentation involved and the requirements of their public sector customer?

It is imperative that businesses new to selling to the public sector marketplace or seeking to improve their success rate at winning public sector contract opportunities understand both how the public sector procures products and services and, most importantly in today’s economic climate, how to correctly identify the contract opportunities which they have a fair chance of winning.

Many small companies achieve success through the opportunities presented by public sector contracts and key to this success is an understanding of:

• The processes and practices used by public organisations when tendering
• The legislative framework within which public authorities must act
• The criteria against which your tender will be evaluated.

The Government provides support to SMEs through good practice guides and online information sources. There are also various pieces of legislation applicable to the procurement of goods and services from the public sector, all of which provide a basis for understanding public sector customers and the government marketplace in general.

Although contracts below the EU thresholds are not subject to EU law, the matter is complicated for SMEs because there is no particular policy which all public sector organisations in England are required to follow.

However, the advertisement of below-threshold contracts should still comply with the basic principles of the EU Directives of non-discrimination, equal treatment, transparency, mutual recognition and proportionality. All organisations in the UK, responsible for spending public money "have a duty to operate in an open and transparent way".

It is important for SMEs to be informed of these rules because they need to be aware that the size of the contract will affect the method by which public organisations procure their services. They also need to be aware that there will be subtle variations between organisations, for example, where they set there limits so a contract which does not need to be competitively tendered for in one borough may well in another. There are also variations between the procurement practices of central government and local government.

If you decide to bid for a public sector contract there will be a fixed process with a set timetable. Each tender will have a set of deadlines for the required information which you must adhere to. If these deadlines are missed, your bid may be automatically rejected.
In many cases the first step is to complete a formal Expression of Interest (EOI). Buyers may ask you to fill in a questionnaire to give them information about your company’s financial position and technical abilities. This can include information about when your company was formed, what experiences you have had providing the items the contract is for, details of where the buyer can get references from, and details of your company’s finances. If your company is new and you have not got a set of audited accounts, there are other documents you can provide to prove your financial standing.

Use the supplier information service on Supply2.gov.uk to manage your Expression of Interest information. This allows you to complete fields with commonly asked information and send it electronically to the buyer. Supply2.gov.uk also provides a dedicated Resources section where you can access further information to assist you in the tender process.

Supply2.gov.uk also supports the Supply National SME Engagement Programme, which is hosting a variety of new events from smaller workshops, roadshows and Meet the Buyer sessions to larger scale regional conferences, throughout the UK — all aimed at increasing the success of SMEs tendering for public sector contract opportunities.

Peter Welch, Director of Hertfordshire based company, Meridian Cost Benefit attended the Supply2.gov.uk roadshow in Spring 2009.

Director, Peter Welch said;

"The Supply2.gov.uk Roadshow was excellent value for money. The advice I received on the day from the procurement expert was second to none. I have previous experience of tendering for public sector work, however, the additional practical knowledge I gained from the Roadshow has enhanced my ability to sell to this complex market."

The Autumn Roadshow begins in September, providing an introduction to basic tendering procedures and covering the essential aspects of tendering documentation. Dates have been scheduled throughout the UK until December 2009.

For further information on Supply2.gov.uk or to book your place on the Roadshow please visit www.supply2.gov.uk or contact the Events Team on 0845 270 7095.