Embedding social value into procurement: National Highways’ social enterprise dynamic purchasing system

Beth Bradley-Smith, principal consultant at Proxima, and Jo Wilkes, head of procurement at National Highways, describe how National Highways has enabled social enterprises to bid for contracts with the public sector that are typically out of reach

National Highways, the organisation responsible for operating, maintaining, and improving England’s roads, holds a weight of responsibility when it comes to procurement as the custodian of large sums of taxpayers’ money each year.

National Highways recognise that they can deliver a significant amount of social value by spending money with organisations that have a clear social or environmental purpose — specifically social enterprises. These organisations often help disabled and disadvantaged individuals from a wide range of backgrounds into meaningful work, making a real positive impact on individual’s lives.

Whilst public procurement opportunities are available to all, they can appear complex and onerous. Many of these organisations are smaller and struggle to bid for public sector contracts that may involve an extensive list of requirements, lengthy paperwork, and often unfamiliar processes.

National Highways wanted to enable these organisations to bid for contracts that are typically out of reach. By creating their Social Enterprise Dynamic Purchasing System (SEDPS), National Highways addressed numerous challenges in one go, helping both itself and its supply chain to spend their money in both a commercially competitive and morally just way.

So, how does the SEDPS work, how was it established and how is it helping the broader public sector to support social enterprises in supply chains?

Establishing an easy-to-use, flexible system                                                 

The SEDPS has a number of categories with pre-approved social enterprises ready for anyone at National Highways, their supply chain, or other Government organisations to support and buy from easily. This includes signage, professional services, consultancy and training, and Design, Video and Photography services, to name a few. The team have also designed the call-off competition to be quick and easy to use for in-scope authorities.

Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, an organisation linked to the Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI), recruits ex-army veterans who were likely to become long-term unemployed or homeless back into full-time employment by creating road signage. The RBLI is in the SEDPS’ signage category, meaning that anyone running a National Highways project, scheme or program can buy from them. National Highways’ CPO, Malcolm Dare, is ex-military and has been a passionate advocate for helping organisations such as the RBLI find routes to market with government organisations.

Setting up social enterprises for success

Engaging these organisations and getting them ready to bid for work was a complex task, and the team were faced with the challenge of adapting their standard procurement approach. In particular, simplifying public sector procurement documentation into plain English to make it accessible to smaller organisations that were not familiar with the typical language used in public sector documents.

When asked about how the team had made this possible, Jo Wilkes, part of the National Highways Procurement leadership team, said, “The team have worked tirelessly to ensure that VCSEs were given every opportunity to be able to be successful in their bidding activity.  From running online engagement events both inside and outside of normal working hours to assist volunteers that give up their time to help these social enterprises bid for work, to running a number of 121 sessions to help social enterprises understand the process and documentation. The team also developed several tools to help guide organisations through the application process, creating “how to” guides and a simple online form to complete the pre-qualification questionnaire”.

These tools and processes helped organisations such as Drop the Mask participate in a recent procurement. Drop the Mask Productions CIC are an information technology and media company who aim to use technology and media to solve social problems, promote social justice and equality, and create positive change in society. They create safe, inclusive employment opportunities by removing the barriers for those with physical and mental health disabilities.  

Benefits felt beyond National Highways

The SEDPS helps National Highways to support these organisations and deliver against their Social Value Plan, beyond the PPN 06/20. Its benefits will be wide-reaching, as it is available to anyone at National Highways, their supply chain and other Government organisations.

Many of National Highways’ Tier 1 suppliers have made social value commitments of their own and already report against standard social value metrics, including how many long-term unemployed, disabled individuals and ex-veterans are working on their projects. The SEDPS helps their suppliers to deliver against these and has provided them with an easy route to market to deliver more and embed social value into their own operations.  

How you can support

The SEDPS is available to all procurement teams in the public sector to use. If you would like to support these organisations by spending your money in the right way, or are interested in learning more about the system and how it works, get in touch with the National Highways team: socialenterprisedps@nationalhighways.co.uk.

Andrew Stephenson, Director of Procurement at National Highways: "Last year, we launched our first Social Value Plan where we committed to supporting more social enterprises. We recognise the huge benefits that they deliver by providing meaningful employment, training and support for disabled and disadvantaged people.  We are already buying goods or services from social enterprises on certain projects and schemes (like Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company and Nuneaton Signs), but we wanted to do more.

By creating this Dynamic Purchasing System specifically for social enterprises to join, we hope to encourage any public body to spend with social enterprises via this route." 



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