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Small businesses can win local public sector work – if you know the system

By 23rd March 2018 No Comments
Small businesses can win public sector work.

Many small businesses are missing out on the opportunities to win public sector work in their local communities. I wrote an article for LaoisToday on the great opportunities to win public work in my home county of Laois for those who get to know the system.  The approach I described works for SMEs in every county and city in Ireland, so I’ve provided a (slightly) less Laois focused version of my original article below.

Earlier this month LaoisToday reported on the disappointment of councillors over the awarding of Laois County Council contracts to companies based outside of Laois.

The councillors asked a very good question: Do small businesses in Laois know what opportunities there are to win work from the public sector locally in Laois?

From the subsequent discussion on LaoisToday’s social media, it became apparent that many local small businesses do not know what opportunities exist, how to find them, or how to apply for them!

This is unfortunate because there is a long list of public sector buyers in every county and city in Ireland. Remember that this list includes not only the local City/County Council, but also government departments and state agencies, hospitals and nursing homes, schools and even semi-state companies such as CIÉ and the ESB.

Add in neighbouring counties and the wider public sector to that, and small businesses anywhere in Ireland can find potential buyers nearby for almost anything from toys to tree surgeons!

How the system works

However, if you want to sell to the public sector it’s essential that you understand how the process works. There are regulations that public buyers should follow when they procure goods and services. These are there to ensure that they get the best value for the taxpayer and that they treat all suppliers fairly.

Under these regulations, public contracts are generally categorised as above the EU threshold or below the EU threshold.

If a potential contract is valued above the threshold of €25,000 (€50,000 for construction works) there are specific processes that govern how this is advertised, what information is asked for, and how tenders are evaluated.

For instance, these opportunities must be advertised on the website etenders.gov.ie. Anybody can search the list of requests for tenders there – you can filter your search for specific buyers (e.g. Laois County Council), or for specific keywords/products (e.g. plumbing).

Suppliers can even fill out a company profile on the website and sign up for email alerts for future tenders in their chosen sector.

If the contract is valued below the threshold, it is still important that a fair process is followed. However public bodies can tailor their approach to suit their individual circumstances.

Therefore, if you want to work with a specific public body, it’s a really good idea to contact its procurement officer and ask for information on how they manage suppliers and what process potential new suppliers should follow.

For instance, Laois County Council explains in the procurement section of its website how it buys goods and services, and it even publishes information on what it spends its money on. All the other county and city councils do this also – so you should check out the website of your local council for more info.

Regardless of the contract type, it’s important to understand that public buyers must base their decision on which suppliers offer the best value at the lowest risk.

Value does not necessarily mean the lowest cost – it is a combination of cost and quality.  To demonstrate quality, you will have to demonstrate that you have the skills to do the job, that you have experience doing similar jobs and that there is a low risk of you being unavailable if you win the contract (e.g. that you won’t be too busy, or even worse have gone out of business).

Sometimes this does result in suppliers being asked to supply a lot of information and navigating your way through a tender for the first time can be daunting.

But it does get easier with practice, and for those that persist the rewards can be good.

Where can you get help?

You can get further information, help and training on public procurement from the following agencies:

  • The Office of Public Procurement oversees public procurement in Ireland and is a good source of information and news.
  • Your Local Enterprise Office can provide advice and mentoring. There’s one in each local authority area.
  • InterTradeIreland, the cross-border trade and develop body, run workshops for small businesses looking to tender successfully for public sector contracts.

Of course, Keystone Procurement can help too.  If you would like to discuss any of the topics featured in this article, you can reach us here.