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Adventures in Wonderland - what happens when a growing SME consultancy firm breaks into the public sector

18 months into a decision to build a public sector practice, we’ve done some interesting work, and made a real impact. But there is a hell of a lot more still to do. And I hate public sector frameworks.

Where did we start from?

Q5 has grown from strengths in media, digital and infrastructure, into financial services and retail in recent years. Based just a stone’s throw from many government departments, we rushed past those buildings, heading towards the organisations who knew what they were looking for, and where we knew the rules of engagement.

But 18 months ago, Q5 took a different view. We realised that the public sector was facing the very same challenges we were solving in the private sector. If we can support organisational transformation in banks, high street retail, and big infrastructure firms, then why would our expertise not be of value to the public sector?

Our established client base is from those who recognise that they need something different – and have found it with Q5. The challenge we faced was building that in a new sector – how do we then compete against the established players within the public sector? The names that civil servants are comfortable with because even if the project does not succeed, you won’t be blamed for bringing them in. How do we encourage risk taking, in a notoriously risk-averse sector?

What have we tried?

We looked to our strengths and addressed our weaknesses. By bringing in expertise from the public sector – ranging from my experience as a Senior Civil Servant in multiple Whitehall organisations to a former RAF navigator with several tours of duty – we catalysed the existing interest in the firm. Turns out that several of our consultants are frustrated policy wonks, who are excited by making a difference to complex public projects and organisations.

We found out that Procurement Frameworks are the public sector equivalents of bouncers, with impenetrable logic and absolute certainty that ‘if your name’s not down’ you can’t compete for vast swathes of work.

We used up a lot of shoe leather and spent a lot of time in Starbucks and Café Nero. Through conversations, we found out the organisations that are in transition, the areas that need Q5’s expertise. And it turns out that there was a latent demand for Q5. We took every opportunity to compete with others, and began to win more and more work.

What has worked?

Our experience is of value in the public sector. Serious organisations with challenging public sector remits have brought us in to help them improve the performance of their organisations. HM Passport Office, the Ministry of Justice and the NHS joined our client base in the past year.

We’ve made a difference. When leadership teams have brought us in, they are seeking to transform their organisation. They know more about their organisation than we will ever know, but will only be going through this form of change perhaps once every 2-3 years, and within a similar environment. We bring in small teams of good people, who as part of Q5 have helped around 80 diverse organisations go through a similar journey each year. We know the questions to ask, and the approach to follow, and can tailor it to the organisation's specific needs. With our help, people get to their goals faster, following a robust process, knowing they have the foundations for long term success.

Transferring knowledge. I know it is a cliché that the public sector should learn from the private sector – in fact it was the line I used when I joined the Cabinet Office from Unilever 15 years ago. I think what is more relevant is that all organisations can learn from how others address similar problems. Q5 has brought that external perspective.

What is frustrating?

Logic is often missing from public sector procurement. The Q5 team often despair at the irrational and bureaucratic approach to procurement. I’ve lost count of the number of times an opportunity has been closed down after we and no doubt others have invested hours in preparing proposals, or processes have been re-run for obscure reasons.

The cards feel stacked against the small players. Head to head, the odds are good. Our team, our expertise and our approach is attractive to clients. However, getting onto the pitch is a challenge. Too often, the procurement rules hold back challenger firms such as ourselves. Framework agreements and legacy contracts often mean that organisations are locked in an arrangement with a big provider – who is not providing the expertise that the taxpayer / service users need.

It takes time to change. We’re learning the rules of the game. When we don’t win work, it is sometimes because we don’t understand it yet.

Would we do it again?

The complexity and illogicality of the procurement process still leaves a nagging question of whether it is worth the effort. But we are making a difference within organisations that provide important services in the UK.

Whatever your political persuasion, helping public services face up to the challenges of a digital future, constrained budget pressures and increasingly complex delivery landscapes is rewarding and useful work.

If you want to find out more, please contact Peter Horne, our Public Sector lead - Peter.Horne@q5partners.com