Bringing greater clarity to London’s GovTech sector: what we’ve learned so far & a survey

Dr Stephen Lorimer, Smart London Strategy and Delivery Officer and Nick Swanson, Senior Officer for Technology Policy, Greater London Authority

Our A Smarter London Together Listening Exercise developing a new Smart London Plan aims to “enable the tech sector to engage with public services and users to understand the pressures London is facing and innovate with data to identify solutions.” In the last month, we’ve hosted a roundtable with buyers and thinkers and a London & Partners fireside chat with GovTech SMEs to hear more. Hearing how we could bring greater clarity to buying and selling GovTech services in London we’ve designed a survey to inform policy development. The survey can be accessed at the end of this post, but first we’ll take you through some of our discussions with London’s leading GovTech firms.

First, we hosted a roundtable at City Hall on 13 February to focus on access for GovTech / CivTech SMEs to public procurement opportunities with Tim Barnes of Rain Gods Victoria and Ian McGill of the Spend Network. Attendees of the roundtable included representatives from think tanks, the Greater London Authority, local authority procurement officers, acceleration programmes in social innovation and GovTech, consultants in procurement platforms and intelligence, and the third sector.

Second, London & Partners, the Mayor’s official promotional agency, hosted a fireside chat with GovTech SMEs on 6 March. They run two programmes to support these businesses. Their Business Growth Programme offers advice and support to London SMEs looking to grow across London and the outer boroughs. The Mayor’s International Business Programme provides mentoring, expert advice and real business opportunities for high-growth companies in London seeking to expand abroad.

The GLA aims to work specifically with and support GovTech- and CivTech- incubators in the public and private sectors to bring the best ideas to market in digital public services, helping London’s residents and businesses to access and use public services and information more easily. We need to break down barriers that restrict GovTech SMEs, community sector organisations and underrepresented groups from entering our supply chain to generate employment, skills and training opportunities for all.

Recent research on public sector contracts in the UK

At the roundtable, research on local government opportunities in the UK was presented outlining:

  • an increase in tenders with a single bid,
  • how few small-value tenders are on BEIS’s Contracts Finder,
  • short timescales to respond to tenders; and
  • long timescales spent assessing bids.

There were some mild challenges made to this research. The data for tenders attracting a single bid was pulled from Tenders Electronic Daily containing only larger contracts (generally more than £181,000). There was also concern that awards in the construction sector may skew local government data on awards. Contracts Finder as a service to boroughs is unstable and crashes — resulting in lack of entry of contract awards into the database. There was general acceptance that more needs to be done to increase awareness

Problems encountered by SMEs in local government procurement

Councils have came under criticism for not thinking about their terms and conditions. The qualifying criteria for contracts and adopting a copy-and-paste approach to company size, turnover, number of years of accounts, professional indemnity levels, and public liability insurance levels required to bid. Ostensibly SME-friendly initiatives such as the Digital Marketplace (where around half of spend is on SMEs) came under criticism for one-sided termination clauses in the framework contract that SMEs find hard to negotiate out of.

Criticism also came at the roundtable for the lack of outreach. Councils outwardly seem to not be planning what contracts are coming up. Prior Information Notices are good practice, but developing ideas before beginning a formal process is even better, and legal. Councils also need help to understand state aid rules before the process, as British government bodies in general tend to misunderstand the exemptions available.

There was criticism from SMEs at the fireside chat that procurement could be quicker and more streamlined — eight months is seen as fast. SMEs felt that councils (and outsourcing companies) need to find ways of opening up data that helps them grow a business that meets councils’ needs. And too often, they feel that boroughs guard their independence too much to adopt common standards.

Next steps

Theo Blackwell, the Chief Digital Officer for London, pledged that we will talk more about concrete propositions for the Smart London Plan:

  • measurement of progress across London’s public sector in % of SME contracts and driving common standards in procurement practice and data
  • solve the big challenge in procurement of data and digital technology solutions where boroughs may not have big enough cohorts for effective investment by tech SMEs in solutions
  • create templates that force councils to describe their needs (in PINs or market engagement) early, often, and preferably in a ‘live’ document
  • A survey to SMEs in the GovTech sector to tell us what is going on and what should we do — which you can go to by following the link below.

To find out more information please visit our Smart London microsite.

The Mayor’s procurement policies and transparency

On 3 July 2017 the Mayor published a strengthened Responsible Procurement Policy, which reflects his determination to break down barriers that restrict SMEs, community sector organisations and underrepresented groups from entering our supply chain to generate employment, skills and training opportunities. Our procurement processes are transparent, straightforward, and open to the whole of the supplier community.

As part of our commitment to be transparent about how we spend public money and award commercial contracts, we publish:

We use a number of websites to advertise contracts in line with our standard procurement procedures. These sites, which are also used by TfL and other public sector organisations, include:

  • www.gov.uk/contracts-finder — the national lower-value contract opportunity portal run by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).
  • www.competefor.com — a free service that enables businesses to compete for contracts linked to major public and private sector buying organisations. This site was used successfully for the London 2012 Games.
  • www.ted.europa.eu — TED (Tenders Electronic Daily) is the online version of the ‘Supplement to the Official Journal of the European Union’, dedicated to European public procurement. TED provides free access to business opportunities across the European Union, the European Economic Area and beyond.