Yesterday, the Australian Financial Review reported that according to AusTender watchdog’s content-tracking system, the overwhelming majority of contract work – $900 million of $1.1 billion spent between 2013 and 2018 – went to just a handful of firms.

“Eleven firms won 80 per cent of recruitment contracts entered into in the financial years 2013-2018, worth about $900 million of the $1.1 billion spent. Just four firms won 80 per cent, or $785 million, of the $824 million in outsourced labour contracts”, they said.

This is troubling, and quite relevant to me as recently I have been investigating the inner workings of AusTender, the Australian Federal Government Tender system, and why it’s so hard for small businesses to apply for and win government tenders.

I thought that being a university-educated woman with a knack for translating complex jargon into plain English, it would be easy for me to identify what they need and how to apply.

So, a few months ago I signed myself up to AusTender to see whether the government is actively gatekeeping financial support in this country, and if they are, how they’re doing it.

The AusTender System

In Australia, the Federal Government provides tenders through the “AusTender” system.

In case you’re not really sure what a tender is, a government tender is a project that Australian businesses can “bid” for, that outlines the business opportunity available. In essence, these projects are where our taxpayer money is being spent.

On the AusTender website, Australian businesses can use their ABN to register and create a profile, and subscribe to notifications about planned procurements and tenders.

Being a freelancer, I was able to sign up and register my interest in all projects across all states.

Why the AusTender System is problematic

I have now been receiving emails for the past few months on the tenders available, and I can see three main reasons why the system doesn’t work for small businesses trying to get financial support.

  1. You need a degree to understand what they’re asking for
  2. The tenders are most often for “management” and “auditing” services
  3. The focus is on giving large sums of money to a select few multi-disciplinary advisory firms, instead of smaller sums to a larger number of organisations.

When I receive one of these emails, I usually have the same blank look on my face, as I try to decipher the jargon and understand what the government is asking for.

The emails come with boring, bureaucratic information; the ATM (Approach to Market) ID, the Agency, the Category, and a “short” description.

A problematic tender example

To demonstrate why I believe the three issues above are preventing smaller businesses from getting useful monetary support from the Australian government, let’s look at a recent tender I received for controlling the Red Legged Earth Mite (RLEM) in grain crops.

Despite the fact that this project does not encourage any sustainable alternative methods to the current destructive agricultural practices that promote monoculture crops in Australia, the tender has a clear focus on “rethinking management approaches.”

Now, if the government were promoting a “rethink of management approaches” that detailed switching from fossil-fuel intensive, monoculture crops to sustainable management practices that exist in harmony with the natural cyclical processes of nature, I wouldn’t mind.

However after decoding the complex and definitely not “short” description, it is obvious that is NOT what the government is asking for.

Translating the not so short description

After a solid ten minutes of “translating” the jargon, I was able to gather that this project is encouraging one of the following three things:

  • The development of new chemical pesticides (to solve a problem caused by insecticides in the first place)
  • The opportunity to introduce “mites and predators” (which, considering the “success” of the cane toad and crown of thorns starfish, seems a silly idea)
  • The development of forecasting tools to either:
    • Increase grower confidence (which is essentially trying to convince farmers that “things will be okay” rather than working on genuine solutions to fix the issue at hand – like diversifying crops)
    • Discourage the use of further applications of cheap pesticides to try and prevent further outbreaks (which is good in theory, but the previous idea of creating new pesticides to solve the issues of old pesticides will not deter the use of pesticides at all, and would it not be smarter to focus on ways to fix the issues without pesticides?)
    • Facilitate pro-active control practices (this one just seems ridiculous as for the most part, in Australia, pro-active control practices usually involve the use of pesticides…)

The concerning thing, apart from the thought process behind the above methodologies, is that these actions would only be able to be carried out by large, multi-disciplinary organisations.

So how do we make tenders accessible to small business?

In my opinion, one tender opportunity, which will probably receive applications from businesses charging millions of dollars, could be split into at least 100 smaller tender opportunities for local businesses and organisations.

It could also be laid out in a much easier to understand format, with visual aids and simpler language to connect with all socio-economic groups, including indigenous communities and local organisations.

The problem outlined in this specific tender description, is the concern of over 50 properties and covering over 1000km in Western Australia. If instead of asking huge, potentially foreign owned yet Australian registered, corporations to pitch for millions in funding to complete “management and advisory” services using methodologies that have cause the problem in the first place, the government could be investing in Australian small business.

Businesses generating under $200,000 annually, who are used to be frugal and clever with their money, could use technology to reduce cost, and apply cheaper, local solutions to solve ecological and agricultural problems.

By encouraging small businesses to apply for smaller tender amounts, then reviewing the success of those projects to determine where to invest further, the government could be supporting multiple small businesses instead of a few large corporations.