National Audit Office calls for cross-government digital procurement platform

Government should introduce a cross-government procurement platform to ensure greater transparency and enable efficiency savings, according to a national spending watchdog.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has released a report which attempted to measure the proportion of government contracts won by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

It said that the lack of an integrated digital platform for procurement makes it difficult to keep track of the issue.

The report said: “In areas not covered by Crown Commercial Service (CCS) frameworks, this makes it harder for CCS to assemble information on cross-government spending or contracts and identify areas in which SMEs are making significant contributions to the delivery of government services or have the potential to have a greater impact.

“Contracts Finder holds information on some of government’s contracts, but it depends on public bodies uploading information to it that is currently held in over 200 different procurement portals and the CCS has limited oversight of this data.”

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Since July 2015, CCS has carried out a small number of spot checks to confirm that public bodies are using Contracts Finder to publicise their contract opportunities.

CCS should work with the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service to assess the feasibility of an integrated cross-government procurement platform to support its commercial strategy, the NAO concluded. A digital platform could also ensure policy teams to procure services and products without the support of commercial teams, it said.

In the short term it said that CCS should ensure “clear lines of governance and accountability for the use of Contracts Finder” and enforce the requirement for public bodies to use it to advertise opportunities.

The Cabinet Office claims that 27% of government’s procurement spending was with SMEs in 2014-15, surpassing its target of 25%.

However, the NAO said it is difficult to tell whether this is a rise over previous years.

It said: “The reported annual increases in spending with SMEs happened in parallel with the CCS’ work to improve its data.

“Therefore, it is not possible to know how much of the reported increase is due to the changes in approach and how much is an actual increase in SME activity.”

Naureen Khan, associate director of public sector at tech industry body TechUK, said: “To continue to make progress against the government’s target, a focus on opening up the market and creating a level playing field is critical.

“The NAO rightly points out there is a clear issue with civil servants understanding of SMEs’ capability, and where they can have the most impact.”

A recent TechUK survey of 171 SMEs found that the top three barriers for SMEs accessing the public sector market are onerous procurement process (64%), risk averse culture (59%) and onerous terms and conditions (33%).

Colin Marrs

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