Opinion: How government CIOs can buy more from SMEs

Research by the British Computer Society in 2005 found that only 16% of IT projects are truly successful, writes Leanne Johnson, business liaison manager...

Research by the British Computer Society in 2005 found that only 16% of IT projects are truly successful, writes Leanne Johnson, business liaison manager at Accredit UK.

The public sector has spent huge amounts of money on information and communication technologies in the past decade. To reduce the apparent risk of failure, it uses a purchasing regime that favours larger suppliers. Small and medium enterprise (SME) suppliers are often overlooked because there are no specific IT quality standards aimed at SMEs.

Working with larger suppliers often means higher prices, but this is countered by the risks associated with using smaller, potentially unsustainable suppliers.

To overcome this legislated mistrust and to enable public sector firms to buy IT with more confidence from SMEs, Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency for the West Midlands, commissioned the National Computing Centre (NCC) to write and implement quality standards for IT suppliers, including guidelines for purchasers. This initiative is called Accredit UK.

Research shows that many people do not really understand the complex requirements of an IT project. Often they end up signing orders without a correctly written or understood scope of work. This often leads to project failure when the goods or services are delivered.

The Institute of Directors believes the way the public sector buys IT leads to a constant reinvention of the wheel. This is due to a lack of integration across the public sector when it buys or outsources IT. To overcome this, Accredit UK has produced a range of Guides to Purchasing ICT aimed at SMEs and the public sector.

These guides give consistent, practical advice on what questions to ask and company attributes to look for to produce a professional, all-encompassing scope, and therefore improves the odds of getting a "fit for purpose" solution.

Accredit UK has also set up an accreditation scheme to improve supplier performance in terms of professionalism, reliability and cost-effectiveness. To become accredited, an independent third party must assess the supplier's business in terms of general business practice and technical skills.

Accredited suppliers are assessed against best practice industry benchmarks and must demonstrate their commitment to continuous improvement through annual light touch reviews.

The Glover review stated that the public sector must buy more from SMEs to support job creation and innovation, as well as lower costs. Glover said, "Improving SME participation in public procurement is best achieved by making the market work effectively to allow SMEs to compete effectively for contracts. This requires that opportunities should be transparent, the process as simple as possible, and that a strategic approach to procurement encourages innovation and gives SMEs a fair deal when they are sub-contractors."

Government and opposition politicians have indicated their willingness to use public sector procurement as a way to reset the economy on IT-intensive products and services.

Public sector CIOs and purchasing managers should acquaint themselves with Accredit UK and its accredited suppliers as a way to get a quick start on this road.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)