Harnessing e-commerce

When the British Printing Industries Federation’s (BPIF) members don’t like something, the BPIF does not sit on its hands.  Regular readers of Government Technology may remember the ‘head-to-head’ in May 2006’s issue between Lizzy Hawkins, public affairs officer at the BPIF, and Tony Dunning, procurement manager for Birmingham International Airport, on the pros and cons of charging prospective suppliers for the privilege of applying for work. The BPIF argued that putting obstacles in the way of companies interested in doing business with Government would deter successful companies from applying and reduce competition for tenders.

Putting money to good use
Lizzy Hawkins reports that this has indeed been the case: “I have heard from a number of companies, many of which are well-respected in the industry and have won awards, who have chosen to not apply for jobs where they knew they were competitive because they did not see the charges as a good use of their money at such an early stage in the tender. “More importantly, I know of other firms that are delighted when they hear that competitors are pulling out of the race, because they feel it gives them more leeway with their pricing. Government buyers are simply missing out.”

Perverse effects
The BPIF took the issue all the way up to the European Parliament, where they secured a review of procurement directives as part of the ongoing development of the Single Market. Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP championed this cause in a European Parliament report on EU innovation, which warns of the procurement procedures’ ‘perverse effects’, and refers explicitly to ‘crippling’ fees charged by public bodies to process tender applications.

Online marketplace
However, closer to home they have been busy establishing a means to enable their members to tender easily for public sector contracts using e-procurement tools. The BPIF Print Portal will harness the latest
e-procurement technology to create an online marketplace enabling printers to access public sector contracts.

The portal will enable buyers to specify a job, define the desired qualities of prospective suppliers, and send a request for a price to all selected printers. Once a supplier has been selected from the prices returned, a buyer will be able to complete their purchase online. The portal will also offer a range of other services, such as real-time online assistance in creating a job specification, peer review of suppliers and, with regular use, reports on a buyer’s print purchasing habits, which will allow improved management of print buying.

Driving efficiencies
Mike Hopkins, BPIF membership director, explained that the current direction of Government policy had encouraged the development of the portal: “The treasury is trying to promote e-commerce to drive efficiencies into all processes, and Government also wants to encourage SME trading with its various department and agencies. The public sector is stuck doing a balancing act between the drive for efficiency and the need to ensure competitiveness by ensuring SME access to public sector tenders. In addition, the cost of processing applications for a contract is daunting. An effective, industry-led e-commerce solution is the best solution to this dilemma.”

Targeted procurement
On a more sector specific level, print buying in the public sector has recently been under scrutiny. Print is purchased by every public sector body, and is therefore subject to a wide variety of procurement techniques. In view of this, the Office of Government Commerce recently investigated how a range of public sector organisations purchase print. They concluded that, while the public sector as a whole spends over £1.7bn on print and paper annually, few organisations knew what sort of print they were buying. One notable example was the 6,000 invoices simply entitled ‘printed products’.

The portal will not only enable buyers to ensure a competitive offer by searching a large number of pre-qualified suppliers, as well as enabling SME access to their contracts; buying print through the portal will enable them to manage their print buying by monitoring what is being purchased and what prices are being secured.

The BPIF’s aim is not just to make life easier for public sector buyers. The portal is designed to take the hassle out of tendering for the BPIF’s members and to provide them with a new marketplace for their services and products. Mike Hopkins is serious about ensuring that the information burden on members is minimised: “We are setting up the portal primarily for the benefit of our members, so it makes no sense to require them to provide huge amounts of information about their companies before they can get onto the system. That’s exactly the sort of administrative burden we want to avoid.”

Here the BPIF’s close involvement in its members’ businesses provides a solution. With benefits available in all fields of business, from HR, HSE, technology, and merger and acquisition activity, the BPIF has a large quantity of information on its members, which will enable it to reduce the amount that its members must submit.

Expert industry knowledge
The BPIF Print Portal’s unique offering is its expert knowledge of the industry. “Much of the complaints we receive from members are that specifications are woolly so they tender for jobs without really knowing whether they are suitable. If public sector buyers established a tight specification at the beginning of the tender procedure, they would save on processing costs because they would cut down on these speculative applications,” explains Lizzy Hawkins.

Mike Hopkins agrees: “The Portal will be designed, with input from both buyers and sellers, to be an effective interface between printers and public sector buyers, mediated by an expert body that will be able to get from printers the information that buyers need and guide buyers to produce a specification that printers can work with.”

The BPIF is currently meeting with a wide range of public sector buyers to establish what information they require from printers, be it generic or job-specific. The aim is to link the portal into a number of pre-existing public sector e-procurement tools to make it as accessible and attractive for buyers.

For more information on the portal, please contact Mike Hopkins on 01924 203 331 or mike.hopkins@bpif.org.uk.Alternatively, visit the BPIF site a www.britishprint.com  

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