IN Inverness earlier this month I attended a Scottish Government event designed to engender a sense of optimism in our economy. It was called Realising Scotland’s Full Potential in a Digital World. My first thought was that, before we set about realising our full potential, we should probably know what our potential is in the first place. As the question had sparked an entire event, I concluded that we are not achieving it.

NVT Group is an SME, one of 1,000 information and communications technology companies (ICT). This sector is dominated by micro-businesses with high levels of innovation and low levels of growth. NVT is an experienced operator in the digital world with 30 years of experience, so why haven’t we achieved our full potential? And why have the ICT sector and other industries not achieved theirs?

Scotland’s commercial behaviour doesn’t help. The largest businesses, including the public sector, don’t do enough in engaging with SMEs. The Scottish Government has good programmes such as CivTech but it still falls short. Public sector procurement repeatedly outsources contracts with global technology partners at a rate far outstripping the rest of Europe, which is more supportive of its SMEs.

Scotland spends 10 times less on its indigenous technology SME community than its European counterparts. If the public sector spent less money overall on digital improvement but spent 10 times more with its own technology SME talent base we would be in a better position to achieve our potential.

The traditional model of public sector procurement simply doesn’t work. In practice, you read the tender and answer the questions on the form (many of which have nothing to do with delivering the service). You price it and you are then at the mercy of interpretation of your response. The procurement decision is subsequently made on a highly subjective interpretation while ignoring the greater aspiration for national economic growth.

On a value-for-money basis, too many contracts are awarded to technology firms headquartered overseas that will take all the cash and pay nothing back. It doesn’t have to be like this. The procurement model deployed by Glasgow City Council for the 2014 Commonwealth Games offered a way forward for indigenous SMEs. This has been ignored at a national level. For Glasgow 2014 we had a buyer that wanted to use local business, large and small, and drive economic growth. It did so without breaking European procurement rules.

The process was interactive and challenging. Yes, we filled in answers and price spreadsheets, but we were then invited to clarify our responses. This sprang from a genuine desire to evaluate the response: “Was this just a fancy wallpaper job or could this supplier really underpin and commit as they had stated on the paper?”

This process ensured the correct decisions were made first time round and saved money in the long run. It was more challenging and time-consuming for the suppliers and probably more expensive for the buyer but the proof is in the result. Glasgow delivered the best-ever Commonwealth Games. The progressive procurement model played a large part in that.

How many technology projects since can claim the same? There have been repeated technology failures and they tend not be by our SME community. Our procurement chiefs need to look at the risks in reality and look a bit closer to home. By doing so, they will find suppliers who actually care about the outcome for the nation instead of filling the boots of faceless overseas speculators.