Where to meet the public sector

The public sector is a lucrative market – gross spending on public sector procurement in the UK was £357 billion in 2020/21, covering everything from office equipment, telecommunications, hospital beds and military equipment, to infrastructure, waste management and adult social care.

Opportunities to sell into the public sector are vast. But government procurement processes have a reputation for being notoriously complex, and this alone can be enough to put businesses off.

There’s good news on the horizon for SMEs. The government has committed to transforming its procurement processes with a new flexible and open competitive procedure. Proposals aim to enable greater transparency and provide a level playing field for suppliers.

This new public procurement regime is expected to come into effect in 2023, so now is the perfect time to start working rooms and building contacts. This blog serves as a guide for networking with the public sector.

Connecting with the public sector digitally

There’s a lot to be said for social media; it has greatly shaped how the public sector engages with the public. A lot can be learned if you follow relevant hashtags and the right people. Via LinkedIn, #publicsectorprocurement is a good place to begin.

Start following people of influence in the public sector segment you wish to target. Look out for key decision-makers such as CEOs, directors, procurement leads, heads of departments, and finance leaders. Do your research. Determine which digital channels are used by the people you want to connect with. Many influential public sector employees will have Twitter and LinkedIn accounts.

By following key decision-makers on social media, you’ll be able to find out more about the sector and get up-to-date news about forthcoming programmes or projects. Then, when you are meeting the public sector buyers, you’ll be well informed and able to make a good impression.

Finding the public sector: where do you go?

In the world of business, all too often it’s not what you know, but who you know. Networking in business is essential and there are well-established circuits for making the right connections.

All sectors have focused expos, summits, conferences and awards, it’s simply a case of finding out which are the most relevant events. There are some events which cover the wider public sector, and others that specialise further. These events are where you can meet public sector buyers.

One effective method of finding out about sector-specific events is to browse trade magazines and websites. For instance, if you are looking to market to schools, Education Today lists a handy guide to UK teaching and education conferences coming up in 2022.

One of the key events in the calendar is The Schools & Academies Show, a part of GovNet.

During the pandemic, when many of our events were moved online, the Schools & Academies team launched a dedicated meeting platform, ConnectEd, for the purpose of networking. The initiative received such positive feedback it continues to this day. It allows exhibitors and visitors to login 4 weeks prior to the event and start to connect and arrange meetings onsite across the two days of the show. At the last event, it resulted in 361 meetings taking place between exhibitors and visitors in the dedicated ConnectEd Lounge onsite.

The internet has dramatically simplified the search for specialist industry events. Almost every UK conference can be found on a single site, you just need to filter down to find the sector you are interested in.

Awards ceremonies can be one of the highlights of the year for key people in specialist sectors. However, simply attending an award ceremony may not be the answer. With the adrenalin of the evening (as well as the flowing sparkling wine), attendees tend to mingle with existing contacts and friends.

So how do you integrate into a cliquey gathering? If you have the budget, you may want to sponsor an award category or drinks reception. This may mean you are involved in the judging process and are invited to pre and post-award events. The organisers will appreciate your support of the event and will usually go out of their way to introduce you to influential people in the room.

Sometimes the best events are smaller, intimate gatherings where you can have more in-depth conversations and build stronger relationships. These can be harder to find out about or be invited to. You may need to dip your toe in with bigger events first, where you can gather information on these more exclusive meetings.

Sometimes it is as simple as going to an expo and asking people on the stands where they would recommend networking with the public sector or the specific industry you are targeting. People are usually very happy to help.

How effective is networking?

Procurement procedures in the public sector create a different playing field – they are rooted in transparency and employ proper competition and tendering rules. For example, opportunities above £10,000 are listed on the government’s ‘Contracts Finder’. Businesses must apply through the proper channels. Contracts aren’t based on handshakes at a private members’ club!

Networking is, however, still incredibly useful in public sector circles. You’ll get to understand the market and find out about the most suitable contracts to bid for, as well as learn about the pain points of the procurement agents you’ll be bidding to.

Although procurement rules must be adhered to, networking can be subtlety effective. Remember the key to networking is to show an interest in the person you are talking to and help them wherever you can. You may find your generosity is reciprocated. Certainly, no one wants to be directly sold to when networking.

Don’t forget to follow-up afterwards. Connect on LinkedIn and drop a quick email saying how much you enjoyed the conversation. People can quickly forget brief meetings at networking events. At larger events, people often find business cards in their pockets or bag and cannot remember the actual conversation. A post-event reminder can really help.

Connecting public and private sectors

Far from being two distinct and isolated sectors, the public and private sectors have a long history of working together. Effective public and private collaborations play a vital role in delivering the services and infrastructure managed by government and public sector organisations. Importantly, strong partnerships between the two help to deliver good governance and ensure that the public interest is protected.

Landing a contract in the public sector isn’t as straightforward as dealing with another private sector company. There are several hoops you need to jump through. Read more about the process of joining a framework and selling into the public sector here.

Collaborations across private and public sectors can take a long time to develop. Building personal relationships can accelerate and solidify a beneficial partnership. There is no better way to build a relationship than meeting face-to-face. There is no time to waste. Find the right events and meet the people who matter in your specialist field.

GovNet is the UK’s leading provider of public sector events and training courses. Find out more about upcoming events or request a meeting with the team today.