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Bias and barriers in government procurement

I quite often see buyers asking how they can make it easier and more attractive for suppliers to come and work with them. I was also reading PUBLIC’s recent report about government procurement that “Procurement continues to favour insiders and incumbents”.

I’ve also recently had conversations with suppliers that some organisations appear to be closed shops to particular suppliers or groups of suppliers.

This is all true.

We all have biases. This gets talked about a lot in relation to recruitment, but not often in relation to procurement.

We quickly form judgements about suppliers and what they’re capable of. Whether they are large or small companies. Biases can also be unconscious, so we might not realise we have them.

When reading a DOS outcome, I can often easily predict which SME will win certain bits of work. I’m not blaming anyone, in most cases it isn’t malicious, and there are a bunch of reasons why. The outcome might be phrased in a way that suggests it’s for the incumbent or those who very specific experience in that sector or department. Or the buyer has previously awarded several pieces of work to one supplier and feels comfortable with them.

It’s frustrating for suppliers who can do the work and can do it well. It also excludes companies new to government work who may be able to bring some much needed fresh ideas and approaches. Why put in the effort when you know you won’t get through?

Several years ago, we regularly talked about the same big suppliers winning things over and over again. But the same is true for groups of SMEs as well. Where the same groups of SMEs win work over and over again, it stifles competition and innovation as much as when the big suppliers win.

For me, questions about how to get more suppliers to work with your organisation is like the question about how do we hire more women in tech. Just do it. Hire them.

What can we do to address this?

Buyers can start by challenging themselves to take a fresh look at bids and suppliers.

They can write better outcomes that attract a more diverse set of companies responding.

Try to think about how a supplier who hasn’t had any interaction with you before might respond – does your outcome make sense to someone approaching this without knowledge?

If there are incumbents already working on the service, be clear about that to potential bidders and share the results of any work to date.

Make sure your list of requirements is fair to all suppliers. They shouldn’t include a required number of years of experience or very specific knowledge of a sector.

But this alone won’t fix things.

I’m wondering if there is merit in trying to make some forms of buying technology in government more anonymous. At least at the pre-proposal and pitch stages.

When I’m a buyer doing evaluation of first round DOS bids (those 100 word answers), I don’t want to see the company name, or know if they are an SME or large company. I’d rather they didn’t use their name in their answers. I want to judge the answers on merit as much as I can.

Would the outcome be different if I marked the answers without knowing anything about the suppliers? I suspect it might.

Every little bit helps. Biases are often unconscious, so even small tweaks can make a big difference. And the better we all get at this, the wider the group of suppliers, the better innovation and value we get from doing good things.

Published in work


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