Small/Medium-sized Enterprises finding public sector contracts.

We have set ourselves the task of using public data to provide a free service to business users, particularly small business users by rethinking the dissemination of Public Sector tendering opportunities.

The current and dominant model is that of a database maintained by a public body or a commercially curated database which users are encouraged to search for opportunities to sell goods and services to the public sector. The data is held in a wide variety of locations with differing interface designs and data models.

The current system has some problems that we have encountered and will be discussing here as we address them in turn. The core problem, however, is apparent from the outset:

Currently, high-value events are identified by users of the existing systems concerned with such activities and middle to large enterprises relatively asset rich, (time, skill-set, money). More important still is the fact that by design these (high value) events are more frequently encountered in the centrally maintained databases. Conversely, small business – SME’s are usually looking for opportunities that are low value, less frequent and more likely NOT to be found in the central databases. In other words, the person with least time (as well as skills and money) has to expend more effort to find far fewer opportunities in a more disparate set of sources. As a result, they see the search process as profoundly unsatisfactory and not infrequently turn to commercial services to help them ‘find’ openly available public data.

This is not a problem that can be addressed solely by improving the user interface of search tools provided to support access to the store of tendering opportunities. Although the UK government does deserve credit for its recent enhancement of the search tools, provided on its website for finding tenders. https://www.gov.uk/contracts-finder

The fact is that both at a national level and across the EU it is a stated aim of governments to help grow the SME sector by making it easier for SME’s to bid for public tenders. The problem is that creating or enhancing an efficient marketplace for the goods and services offered by SME’s is undermined by the situation set out above. The requirement of SME’s to apply a high level of effort, consistently over long periods of time – finding the low frequency, low-value events, means a new system is required. Not least because as we shall be discussing later, the method used to categorise the requirements of purchasers (CPV codes) and describe the sector of the businesses themselves (SIC Codes) does not help current users find providers or customers.

 Governing principles

•  Provide the tool(s) that users need to do the job they have set out to do
•  Know the users and customise the experience as far as is possible while following all the other principles
•  Provide information at a time, in a format and in the place that users need to be
•  Support the task and collect data from its execution
•  Ask users only for the input relevant to their part of the overall task
•  Wherever possible use information collected elsewhere to support them and minimise effort
•  Never ask users for data twice
•  Create new data, knowledge and understanding by merging all the data from the execution of tasks and use this to provide new and enhanced services

What these principles suggest is that it is essential to gather information about the user and their intentions before deciding on a solution. Currently, the problem is constrained to developing and refining search tools. In effect, the systems in use now require users to design a search and repeat it indefinitely. By contrast, we feel that we must find out about our users and use that information to structure the data and build the experience. Doing so requires that what users ‘find’ and how they find it should vary. We must design our data store to accommodate not just the data we intend to share with users but also the data we want to collect from other sources and perhaps most important of all, the information we want to create from the deployment of the system. As Pask put it, both actors have to have been changed for a conversation to have taken place. Our goal is to re-engineer the search task into a dialogue between actors in a system.