A fresh opportunity

Businesses in the UK are about to have access to billions of pounds-worth of new business leads now that the opportunities portal from the Small Business Research Initiative has gone live.
    
While by law all high-value public procurements have to be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), a similar vehicle for smaller contracts simply does not exist. That is, until now. The new portal aims to fill this gap and establish itself as the leading gateway for smaller contracts typically under £100,000. It is also set to make it easier for all types of business, particularly small ones, to start up companies, and for those involved in the voluntary and community sector to work with government.
    
The portal launches this spring, and Glasgow-based BiP Solutions, which has 21 years of experience in providing public sector contracts information to businesses, has been awarded a five-year contract to design, build and market the portal to buyers and suppliers. Jointly initiated by OGC and the Small Business Service (SBS), the portal will have an association with SBS-owned Business Link to build on the reputation gained by the award-winning information portal for growing enterprises.  

Assisting e-Procurement
The market for smaller public contracts is worth around £27 billion a year, according to research from SBS, and the portal will play a key role in opening up this market to all types of businesses and giving public sector buyers a wider range of choice. It has been designed to be an opportunities database smaller contracts uniting buyers with suppliers. It is not an e-procurement or e-tendering solution.
    
Across government, many electronic procurement systems, including some opportunities websites, already exist and the new portal is designed to complement and work with such initiatives, including OGC’s e-Sourcing and Zanzibar services. The portal will also interoperate with Constructionline, the government-owned register of local and national construction and construction-related contractors and consultants pre-qualified to work within the public sector.  

Access to information
The register was set up to provide buyers with a credible central source of companies. In order to register, each supplier completes a standard pre-qualification questionnaire with key mandatory fields, which provides significant time and cost savings to both the company concerned and the buyer. This gives buyers access to a standard set of pre-qualification information giving them assurance that registered companies meet certain requirements.
    
It also saves suppliers from having to repeat the process every time they apply for a contract. Constructionline currently has 12,500 registered suppliers, the majority of them small and medium-sized businesses and 1,500 plus public sector buyers. The portal will also host research and development contracts currently posted on the Small Business Research Initiative’s (SBRI) portal. This will help public buyers to meet the mandatory target set in Budget 2005 to commission at least 2.5 per cent of research and development requirements from small businesses.  

Removing barriers
The new opportunities portal is part of a wider initiative following the report by the Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF) and the Small Business Council (SBC) to remove the barriers faced by small businesses when trying to do business with public bodies.
    
Despite having much to offer, small businesses have found it difficult to work
with the government for a variety of reasons, including not knowing where to go for information about contracts and not being able to deal with or understand the tendering process. OGC and DTI have a national programme for small businesses of which the opportunities portal is one project. Other projects include: making supply chains more transparent; providing training courses for procurers and small enterprises; and introducing a standard, simplified pre-qualification questionnaire for suppliers to make the selection process easier for both parties.  

Supplying government
The concept for the ‘supplying government’ portal project stemmed from a 2003 study, which recommended that a portal should be developed to advertise lower-value public contracts and make it easier for small businesses to access information about these contracts. The report recommended that the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) funds ‘supplying government’ and the development was entrusted to SBS (an executive agency of the DTI) and OGC.

Tried and tested
OGC ran a pilot project that set up an opportunities portal for smaller contracts in the West Midlands in 2003. Following its success, a  decision was made to launch a wider reaching version, which will eventually offer national coverage with operational links established between existing opportunities portals in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This pilot not only demonstrated that there is certain to be a huge demand among the business community for such a service but that, to be successful, a more extensive version must offer a wide range of contracts to create the marketplace and maintain the interest of businesses.

Public Sector Benefits
These include:

Ease of use
From its launch, the portal will be supported by an extensive marketing and communications campaign. Using Internet technology, buyers can simply and easily post their lower-value opportunities without the need for extra training or the expense of buying new software, knowing that the portal will be used by businesses eager to supply to the public sector.

Better value for money
Advertising smaller contracts more widely will help buyers expand their supplier base and stimulate competition. Through the portal’s search function, they can access new and innovative products and services, find specialist or niche sector suppliers that may yield better value for money. Indeed, it is well known that small companies (such as those likely to use the portal) are often early adopters of new technologies and because of their size they can be more flexible and agile.  
    
As well as being able to post contracts, buyers can use the directory of suppliers (which contains a listing with a short profile of each subscriber) to help them create a short list.
    
Public bodies without facilities to advertise procurements, or where their arrangements  are coming up for renewal, could find that they can save on development and running costs by signing up now to use the new portal. For those with existing facilities to post opportunities, the new service will give buyers the opportunity to publicise their smaller contracts nationally. To benefit from using the portal, they won’t have to start from scratch and re-think their online procurement strategy - they can quite simply link up with the portal to post their opportunities.

Supplier Benefits
Until now, any business interested in smaller-value contracts would have found it difficult to find them. These contracts are sometimes not advertised or, if they were, information was spread across various websites or magazines, newspapers and journals.
    
In addition to sourcing smaller contracts, suppliers are able to use the portal as a channel to promote themselves to buyers of public services through a new directory of suppliers. They can also register for time-saving e-mail alerts notifying them when suitable contracts are posted.  
    
For more information
For further details, visit the Small Business Research Initiative’s (SBRI) portal at www.sbri.org.uk

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