Many small to medium sized firms specialising in high quality printing in the UK will be intrigued to read a new report outlining the most frequently received complaints by the government’s Mystery Shopper Service, showing that the common problems encountered by SMEs with public sector procurement remain unchanged from three years ago.
Across the December 2012 and February 2014 reports on the service by the Cabinet Office, the main identified trends included problems with pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs), the speed of payment and a bias towards larger suppliers on framework agreements.
Although the second 18 months of the service saw a smaller percentage of procurement process issues reported by the government, from 75% of all issues raised to 50%, there was still an increase in the proportion of these related to PQQs, now accounting for half of all process complaints, rather than merely a third.
Of these, the most common was how bidders’ financial strength was assessed, amid suggestions of some contracting authorities demanding three years’ audited accounts and using levels of turnover as single assessment criterion. Also frequently complained about were PQQs requiring the input of a considerable amount of text and data, even for low-value contracts.
Both reports indicated issues with the prompt payment of contractors and sub-contractors, as well as failure to make payments in accordance with the terms of a contract. The second report suggested some payments were not paid at all.
With regard to frameworks, SMEs in the February 2014 report continued reporting a bias towards larger suppliers, as illustrated by “overly short timescales being set for mini competitions when calling off from framework agreements” and “the acceptance of ‘pro bono’ [or] uneconomic bids”.
These were all problems frequently experienced by firms tendering for public sector contracts to provide high quality printing in the UK, said Kathy Woodward, president of the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF). She added that new trends had emerged that were no less damning than the more familiar issues.
“There is now a situation with government contracts where the holder is required to open house to people who are tendering, giving them access to confidential information of the business.
“Equally some authorities are now contracting third parties to carry out ‘ethical audits’ of suppliers that sometimes require higher standards than those required by legislation. Yet those same terms and conditions are not then imposed on, for example, overseas sub-contractors.”
The Mystery Shopper Service was established in 2011, and allowed for the reporting by suppliers of poor procurement practice in the public sector, more than 600 reported cases having now been received in total.