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Talking Point with Anastasia Savidu

Pre-qualification was aimed at fast-tracking contract awards, but it is failing to do this.

Quality assurance and standardisation are admirable principles. It cannot be denied that the widespread application of International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) standards has considerably improved quality, safety and environmental performance. Yet I believe the purpose behind the development of these systems has been ill-treated.

The control and vetting of suppliers is one of the core principles of the ISO 9001 quality assurance standard and is essential in all industries. Each organisation has to have systems in place to ensure their suppliers are equally committed to improvement.

ISO enables suppliers to demonstrate compliance through third-party inspection, reducing the time and costs associated with conforming with individual vetting procedures.

Successful delivery would streamline procurement and create a level platform for trade. So why is the pre-qualification process becoming ever more complex? Is it because of increasing demands from the end consumer for better quality, more safety, greater care for the environment? I am not convinced.

Holding ISO certifications was not enough and suppliers still had to complete each company’s own pre-qualification questionnaires

The more standards that were generated, the more intricate the internal procurement procedures of the buyers - government bodies, public and private companies - became. Holding ISO certifications was not enough and suppliers still had to complete each company’s own prequalification questionnaires (PQQs).

Subcontracting the procurement process to “umbrella” vetting organisations seemed a neat solution both for buyers and suppliers alike. These organisations promised to take the procurement headache away for buyers by rigorously vetting suppliers on their behalf. For suppliers they promised to put an end to the time-consuming repetition of the pre-qualification process. Yet the opposite happened.

The buyers’ procurement departments devised even longer PQQs which invariably queried the same issues already addressed by the umbrella organisations and ISO accreditation bodies. Membership of the umbrella organisations became just another pre-requisite for pre-qualification.

To make matters worse for suppliers, to be visible to all buyers they have to become members of all the “umbrella” organisations. Each year suppliers spend thousands of pounds to maintain their subscriptions, but this does not guarantee pre-qualification or work.

The impact of the misapplication of ISO principles is profound. The pre-qualification frenzy needs to be controlled, rationalised and put into context. Vetting organisations and accreditation bodies need to sit together with buyers’ and suppliers’ representatives and produce common processes and mutual acceptance criteria. All ISO accreditation organisations must be vetted by UKAS to reinforce trust in the certification.

We must shift our focus back to the original objectives of the standards to create a reliable and safe common platform that can facilitate free and fair trade for all.

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