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Willie Miller's Blog

This is Willie Miller's Blog.

Small practices and procurement

October 31st, 2009

procurement form

Last week I was trying to complete a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) for an interesting study down south.  The contract value of the job was £30,000 and the PQQ was 37 pages in length.  Even so, it excluded any reference to skills, abilities or appropriateness for the job.  The Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII) requirement for the work was £2million per incident.  We carry £1million at the moment so I spoke to my insurance company.  They couldn’t sell me £2M PII for this job because they didn’t think I was a risk - moreover my insurers couldn’t understand why the client thought they might be at risk in commissioning a study of this nature. Madness.  I tried to speak to the client but the procurement rules prohibit direct contact - so the PQQ went in the bin.

This is just one minor example of circumstances that affect small practices throughout the UK every week.  In Scotland, it is certainly the case that Framework Agreements and other aspects of procurement regulations make it increasingly difficult for small practices to get public sector work.  At the other end of the scale, a few large practices soak up more and more small jobs enabling them to grind out more and more very ordinary work.  Most larger companies in our field generally do not innovate - why should they - but instead repackage the intellectual property of others and present it as their own work, appearing to be cutting edge while living resolutely behind the curve. Now maybe that is exactly what many clients want - an easy life without challenge or conspicuous thought - but it certainly isn’t what is needed to spark new approaches to the future of cities, towns and rural areas.

Small firms are usually recognised as the key engine for innovation in any advanced economy, not only in design but also in process.  The UK and perhaps the EU has been slow to realise this and both have done little to change the current situation at government level. At individual Council level some commissioning departments work hard to keep certain kinds of studies and commissions away from the procurement people but it is difficult to operate sensibly in an environment where the predominant culture is one of box-ticking and risk-aversion.

Of course it is easy to grumble about the procurement industry - for that is what it is now - with its career structures, standardised PQQs, training course and tender list providers. Like the regeneration industry, it has spawned its very own parasitic army. However the point of it all must be to produce something of excellence and value, in our case for architecture, urbanism, spatial strategy, for communities in cities, towns and rural areas and significantly for local economies where small firms can make a significant and beneficial impact.

I would like to see a wider debate taking place on procurement so if you have had any experiences worth sharing or if you are aware of better ways in which public agencies can commission new work please get in touch ( or leave a comment.

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