Be brave and be creative: Removing barriers to third-sector involvement in public contracts

Andrew Stephenson, National Highways Procurement Director, and Jo Wilkes, Head of Procurement, tell Proxima what has worked for them and their VCSE suppliers
Image by aymane jdidi from Pixabay

Voluntary, community and social enterprises are a critical part of the UK's third-sector economy, providing significant benefits to communities up and down the country, helping to tackle social problems, and creating jobs.

A recent research piece by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, titled  The role of Voluntary, Community, and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations in public procurement"  notes the uphill battle VCSEs may experience with public contracts, facing barriers which mean that fewer than one in five report that their primary source of income is from trading with the public sector.

National Highways, the organisation responsible for operating, maintaining and improving England’s roads, is determined to find practical ways to remove the barriers that may stop these organisations from participating in public sector work. Below is an outline of some of their key learnings. Proxima sat down with with Andrew Stephenson, National Highways Procurement Director and Jo Wilkes, the Head of Procurement responsible for this procurement, to discuss what has worked for them and their VCSE suppliers.

Adjust your typical ways of working

One of the key things to remember about social enterprises in the UK is that they are often run by people with a day job. Volunteers who fit the work at the VCSE into slivers of their time. Whilst procurement professionals are used to carving time out of their 9-to- 5 schedule, buyer events involving VCSE’s will often need to happen in the evenings or even the weekends to be successful. Ultimately, social enterprises run on a different schedule, and accommodating that needs to be a key consideration for procurement teams looking to engage them in public sector work.

Simplify documentation and processes

Documentation, processes and terminology may appear complex. Even a seasoned supplier may find it a challenge to complete a tender. Social enterprises may be unfamiliar with the language used with public sector procurement, may find it off-putting and opt out of responding unless the authority takes care to combat this and realise that VCSE’s may need support to understand what is required.

Solutions to this range from simply showing a bidder what a “good” answer might look like to altering any standard and dense language used in tender documents and removing any “jargon”. Write in a way that is “normal, not formal”, as National Highways express it.

The DCMS research also points out that the sector has a digital skills gap, with less than half of the sector rating their skills as good. As public sector buyers must use digital sourcing, National Highways now routinely uses aids such as narrated PowerPoint presentations and videos taking potential bidders through the bidding process step-by-step. This has been an effective addition to standard bidders’ workshops. It means that people from a  VCSE can consume the information at a time that suits them, enabling and supporting their participation.

Be creative – don’t just fall back on the “normal” public sector processes

Whilst work is already being done to make the typical process easier to navigate, public sector procurement is a highly regulated environment, and it’s only too tempting for buyers to do the same again as the safe option.

Ultimately, however, if a public sector organisation wants to engage VCSEs, it needs to be brave and creative to level the playing field. 

National Highways is already looking at how it might further use structured interviews as part of its drive to improve accessibility and to ensure that substance is scored and not quality of bid-writing. Instead of off-putting forms and electronic portals, more informal but transparent engagement may open the door for social enterprises that wouldn’t have previously attempted to bid for work.

The DCSE report is clear on the barriers and the potential for VCSES to contribute much more in public sector contracts.  Public sector procurement teams need to be brave and embrace an agile and creative approach to buying and give VCSEs the best chance of success.  While there’s still work to be done, National Highways are proving that their hard work is generating rewarding results. 


Share this page