Government exploring small business passports and innovation sandboxing for SMEs

Emma Jones, the government’s SME Crown Representative, is tasked with the challenge of focusing the minds in central government of reaching the target of 33% of all Whitehall spend going to SMEs by 2022. It’s been a long running ambition, first established by previous Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, back in 2015. The initial target was 25% of all spend, but was extended by Matt Hancock, another previous Cabinet Office Minister, now Health and Social Secretary, to the higher target of 33%.

Speaking this week at a techUK event in central London, Jones joked:

I think I’ve had three ministers since [the original target came into force] – that’s not a political statement, that’s just fact.

Questions over the success of the target remain, however. Recent figures show that the overall spend in government with SMEs is actually declining, whilst the Cabinet Office recently revealed that almost half of spend on digital is going to smaller businesses. There are also disputes over how the figures are calculated, with a lot of the spend going to SMEs indirectly, through larger SIs’ supply chains.

Jones hinted that some of the early motivation behind reaching 33% may have faded somewhat – not entirely, but somewhat. She said:

One of the things that I’m seeing in government at the moment, which I think is quite interesting, is the language that is used. When Francis Maude launched it, it was a target. I quite often hear the word now in government of ‘ambition’. Read into that what you wish. However, one thing I do see in government, is huge appetite to hit that target or ambition.

New Ministers

However, despite this, Jones was keen to highlight a number of developments and actions that the government is taking to further increase the participation of SMEs in government buying.

One area that hasn’t been talked about much is that the government has recently created a group of SME champions, one person within each department, that is responsible for helping their department reach the SME target. Jones said that they meet every two months to compare notes on what each department is doing and collaborate on how further progress can be made.

Separately to this, the Prime Minister has also recently asked each central department to appoint an SME Minister, to further focus their mind’s on the SME spend target. Jones said:

They all came together in July. The job of those ministers is to meet with their commercial director and to make sure that the SME action plans are being adhered to.

Other developments

Jones was also keen to highlight two other developments that are in place, which could help make it easier for SMEs to do business with government, but also perhaps introduce innovation into the supply chain.

Firstly, Jones pointed to some tests taking place to help establish a ‘small business passport’, which could help reduce the bureaucracy in SMEs bidding for government work. She explained:

The very first thing I said when I came into the role was that when a small business responds to a tender it tends to be the founder that’s doing the applications on the weekend. It’s really crazy that every single time we bid for work, we have to complete the same mandatory information every single time. Couldn’t there just be something that you complete once, and then it’s just available?

There has been a test done, called Complete Once, which has been a quiet test to see if this will work. Will business owners put in the correct information? Whose responsibility is it to update that information if it changes? I’m hoping the test results come back positive.

At the same time government is also looking at something called a single business passport, which is something again where the business owner has one detail, it moves with them around different departments. There are different groups looking at how easily this can be done. That’s still something that can be simplified to save time.

Elsewhere, Jones is also in discussions with government about how it could possibly buy solutions that it doesn’t even know it needs. In other words, be provided with solutions that may be in the market, but it wouldn’t necessarily know to tender for. She said:

In going round the UK, lots of entrepreneurs have said to me is that the reason they can’t sell to government is that they sell a product or service that government doesn’t yet know it needs. So, how do we connect products and services that are very innovative with current procurement? I have to say, I’m yet to find a solution to this.

I was just with the guy that runs the all parliamentary group for entrepreneurship, where one of the things they’re particularly focused on is sandboxed environments where small businesses can be helped to sell into government. How do we take away regulation in a confined environment?

Get businesses to test if that would work, and it is then sold into government, which then de-risks it for a government buyer. That piece on innovation we haven’t quite figured out how that works.

Image credit – Via Pixabay