Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has labelled the public sector's old way of procuring IT products as a "speed dating approach" and added that UK.gov needed to learn from its European neighbours such as Germany and France.
Maude was speaking at a Crown and Suppliers conference in Whitehall this morning that was attended by a variety of companies including the usual suspects such as Microsoft, IBM, Dell, CSC and Fujitsu as well as what appeared to be a gentle smattering of SMEs.
"In the same 12-month period while British companies won £432m of EU contracts, French firms won £911m and German firms £3.6bn. The UK awards 3 per cent of public procurement by value to foreign suppliers, compared to 1.9 per cent in Germany and 1.5 per cent in France," the minister told delegates.
"And it’s not because France and Germany break any rules. They don’t. The difference is the governments of these countries work closely with their domestic firms so they are geared up to win contracts at home and abroad."
Maude complained that Blighty's public sector workers were "over-interpreting EU law and overreacting to fears of bias in favour of British suppliers".
The minister added that civil servants in the UK were taking "an almost deliberately short-sighted approach to working with business," which has meant, he believes, that British companies have missed out.
"While Germany and France nurture mutually beneficial long-term relationships with their key suppliers – the British public sector has taken a speed dating approach to ours," he said.
According to Maude, this apparent snub towards Blighty outfits has proved bad business for UK PLC, in part because it has hampered would-be bids from smaller companies.
As a result, he argued, "we’ve excluded some of the most innovative and competitive suppliers from doing business with us and for us".
Maude, who over the weekend came under fire following his comments about strike law reform within the public sector, reiterated earlier comments about wanting to save taxpayer money by doing a better job at procurement.
The minister said that £800m had been shaved off UK.gov's first financial year from May 2010 to March this year, courtesy of contract renegotiation.
He claimed that costs could be driven down while protecting "front line services", which is arguably a comment many who currently work in the public sector would disagree with.
Contracts gobbled by small biz
Since the Cabinet Office launched its ContractsFinder website, Maude said that over 1,600 contracts had been won by small and medium-sized outfits.
Beyond the rhetoric, Maude made one announcement today - that was leaked to the national press over the weekend - by saying that the Cabinet Office would publish data that "gives clear visibility of the significant level of contracting opportunities with a potential £50bn or more".
The minister hopes the move will help speed up the bidding process for the likes of SMEs.
He reckoned the change, which involves something his department has labelled a "forward-looking resource pipeline", will mean it should be 40 per cent faster for companies to do business in Whitehall than is currently the case.
An average bidding process for a public sector contract currently takes around 200 days to complete.
"These pipelines will be updated at least every six months and include a confidence rating against each project so industry can assess the likelihood of a project going ahead," said Maude.
"In the future we will be in the position to explain our procurement needs for the next decade or 20 years," the minister added.
"This rolling list will change over time but anecdotal evidence suggests that we may want to focus on developing skills and supplier capability in areas such as nuclear, offshore wind engineering, cyber security, onshore call centres, and life sciences research and development."
Maude, who travelled to Brussels immediately after addressing the audience of suppliers this morning, said he would also be urging the European Commission to "radically simplify" the current public procurement directives. ®