Between 2 November and 11 December 2020, we carried out a survey of suppliers to the public sector in Scotland. The survey aimed to gather the views and experiences of suppliers in relation to a number of key strategic topics of importance to Scottish public sector procurement. In total, it contained 67 questions covering a range of topics such as: suppliers' experiences of the bidding process and of delivering contracts (including sub-contracting work); training, support and advice around tendering; barriers to bidding for and delivering contracts; and the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic on suppliers. In total, we received 1,556 responses to the survey.
A summary of key findings from the survey are as follows:
- The pool of suppliers interested in Scottish public sector contracts is diverse, with suppliers of all types, sizes and sectors responding to our survey – most (85%) were small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and around a third (31%) were based outside of Scotland.
- Overall indications are that the Scottish public sector is performing relatively well with regard to procurement and that recent efforts to improve the procurement landscape have had at least some positive impact – however, there is clearly a need for further improvement.
- Suppliers are generally well-equipped to bid for and deliver contracts and are generally encouraged to consider a range of issues during the tendering process, with some elements of the Sustainable Procurement Duty featuring particularly prominently. Eighty-seven per cent and 79% of respondents reported being asked to consider environmental impacts or concerns and community benefits, respectively, 'sometimes' or 'always' during the tendering process.
- Where the Duty is concerned, public bodies are performing less well – and could be doing more – in relation to encouraging innovation. Twenty-seven per cent of respondents reported 'never' being asked to consider innovation when tendering.
- While suppliers generally feel well-placed to bid for a contract, they often encounter a range of difficulties – in particular, many view the tendering process as overly-complex, burdensome and in need of simplification and streamlining. Sixty-three per cent of respondents 'sometimes' or 'always/often' find it difficult to understand questions in tender documents, while 61% 'sometimes' or 'always/often' have difficulties with the timescales for preparing a bid.
- SMEs, third sector organisations, sole traders and local firms face heightened difficulties in navigating procurement systems and in accessing, bidding for and delivering Scottish public sector contracts, both in 'normal' times and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixty-one per cent of SMEs reported facing difficulties identifying available contracts 'sometimes' or 'always/often', compared to 42% of large businesses.
- Many suppliers were unable to comment on the extent to which public procurement has changed in recent years, or on the impact of recent efforts to improve it. This was partly related to the demographics of the businesses responding to the survey and newer companies with less experience of tendering were less likely to provide a definitive opinion. It also suggests that there may be issues around supplier awareness and visibility of various aspects of public procurement, including those relating to the Sustainable Procurement Duty.
- Experiences of sub-contracting were largely positive. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents rated their organisations' experiences of delivering a contract as a sub-contractor as either 'good' or 'excellent'.
- However late payment represents an important concern for sub-contractors, with 54% of respondents indicating that they have not always been paid within 30 days. This was particularly the case for sub-contractors in the construction industry.
- Various mechanisms are in place for suppliers to receive training, support and advice on the tendering process, but take-up of this has been limited – largely because suppliers were unaware that such training is available. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents have received training, support or advice on tendering at some stage.
- Where feedback on tenders is requested, the feedback provided is generally of a good – or at least acceptable – standard. Thirty-nine per cent of respondents rated the quality of feedback as 'good' or 'excellent'. However, such feedback is not always useful, with 21% of respondents rating the quality of feedback as either 'poor' or 'very poor'.
- More could be done to ensure value for money remains at the forefront of public procurement. One third (33%) of respondents 'disagreed' or 'strongly disagreed' that Scottish public procurement focuses on achieving value for money rather than driving down costs.
- Despite the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the supplier base and the wide variety of support in place to reduce the impact of the pandemic, take-up of such support was again mixed. Forty-four per cent of respondents did not receive any support during the pandemic and several suppliers identified a clear need for more guidance, support and training around public procurement.
- Positive lessons can also be learned from the pandemic, with some suppliers reflecting on the increased flexibility brought to the procurement process due to the increased use of technology and homeworking arrangements. Others felt they were well-supported during the pandemic and had good levels of communication with public bodies and other suppliers across the supply chain.
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