You don’t have to be a procurement pundit to understand that it can be difficult to navigate government contracting in the United States. The breadth and scope of American public institutions provides no shortage of opportunity for frustrating acquisition experiences borne from a largely disjointed and fragmented procurement information ecosystem.
Small business owners and leaders, perhaps more than any other demographic, understand this. In the recently published Public Spend Forum Barriers to Entry in Government Markets Report, suppliers ranked the complex, costly, and inefficient processes associated with working with government as one of the most vexing obstacles hindering their ability to work effectively within the public sector — with nearly 3/4 describing the issue as “major” or “significant”. Central to this barrier is the challenge of simply understanding how to get started in the journey to finding public sector opportunities, with nearly 40% of suppliers ranking this impediment as one of the top characteristics associated with this barrier.
This article identifies the major shortcomings of the current U.S. procurement information ecosystem and underscores the need for more comprehensive and accessible procurement resources.
Small Businesses Need and Organized Procurement Ecosystem
Given the complexity of the government procurement process in the United States, the availability of quality resources containing detailed and accessible instructional information is critical for ensuring the participation of small businesses that have no prior experience working with public sector agencies. Unfortunately, many agencies do not offer such resources to help non-traditional suppliers navigate the procurement process. This dynamic is willfully contributing to the information asymmetry that gives incumbent suppliers with greater familiarity with the procurement process an advantage.
In the process of creating the GovShop Small Business Resource Center, we examined hundreds of webpages of instructional resource materials from dozens of different government agencies at the federal, state, and local level. In doing so, we gained many insights and identified strengths and weaknesses in the resource ecosystem available to businesses trying to work with these agencies. As we share these insights, we are cognizant that there are aspects of the procurement process that the staff of these agencies have little to no control over.
However, there are lessons that we can take from some of the stronger resources (resources that were the most useful and accessible from a small business user’s point of view) and apply to some of the resources that were not as user friendly. Among the many areas for improvement we identified, three rose above the rest: Accessibility, Information depth, and Design.
General Accessibility Remains a Challenge
While almost every government agency has linked some resources on their website to assist non-traditional suppliers, there is a tremendous amount of variance in the accessibility of information contained. We found that the use of plain language was much more consumable and easy to understand than those resources that were overly reliant on technical language and acronyms that were used without explanation or context.
The intended audience of these resources are less likely to be familiar with technical terminology and acronyms, so it makes little sense to insert these without providing any explanation that would aid the reader’s understanding. As such, where the use of technical language was unavoidable, we found that the best resources provided the reader some explanation.
Information Depth Varies Significantly Among Agencies
In addition to the accessibility of the information, there was also significant variance in the depth of information covered. Like any good writing, we found that the best resources balanced high level information with agency specific details. For suppliers that have little to no prior experience working with government agencies, having some general information about the procurement life cycle can help them have a complete picture of the process. Additionally, having specific details and instructions can help suppliers through the process of working with specific agencies. Similarly, we found that resources that were thorough yet concise were most reader friendly.
However, resources that were too high-level and lacked any amount of detailed information gave readers an incomplete picture of what they need to do in order to compete in government contracting. Equally, instruction manuals that are nearly 100 page long PDF documents risk inundating non-traditional suppliers with too much detail and ultimately adding to their confusion.
Design Shortfalls Pose Major Obstacles to User Experience
Another important factor to consider here is website design. Some agencies had resources that contain great amounts of accessible instructional information, but related topics were spread across two or more unique pages of their site which had no linkages with each other. Without these linkages, users may not find all of the valuable information and resources that an agency has provided.
Small Businesses Need a Better Way to Navigate American Public Procurement…Or Else!
It is clear that the complex, costly, and inefficient procedural barrier is one of the largest pain points for suppliers that sell their products and services to public sector agencies. This is particularly true for small businesses that are trying to work with the government for the first time, who often struggle to find quality resources to help them navigate the procurement process.
If government agencies want to attract new and innovative small businesses to the public sector market, they should continue to make more resources available as well as improve the quality of existing resources. If these agencies are unwilling to improve the existing base of resources, innovative small businesses may increasingly look to sell their products and services to more business-friendly buyers.