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Thornton & Lowe has been training organisations to bid for public sector (and private) contracts across the UK for 10 years. It supports over 400 tenders every year and boasts a 75% win rate, with 90% of those in the Public Sector. Founder, Dave Thornton, has a background in EU procurement, evaluating bids and tenders within the Housing Sector, so he has experience in both bid writing and bid evaluation.

We asked him a few questions to garner his advice for bidders of government contracts. We began with some basic advice:

Where can I find Public Sector contracts?

Public Sector organisations (whether local authorities, housing associations, educational institutions, blue light services, MoD, NHS etc.) have to abide by The Public Contract Regulations and EU Procurement rules. They have to procure services in a way that is deemed to be open, fair and transparent, and they are accountable for this. The same rules apply to any organisation that is classed as a Contracting Authority, so one that receives more than 50% of its funding from public money.

Their contracts can largely be classed as ‘high-value’, whereby they have to be advertised (for now anyway) in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). All these contracts can be found via TED. There are then ‘lower-value’ contracts, which are less bound and can be advertised in different places depending on an organisation’s internal standing orders. Contracts Finder is used by many Public Sector organisations. (Procurement thresholds can be found on Gov.UK)

Then there are private-sector tender alert and competitor intelligence systems, which take data from a variety of sources, including the two key sources above, and make the information more accessible. For example, Tender Pipeline, which is free of charge.

What detail does Government expect to see from bids?

Across Government and public-sector contracts, expectations range vastly depending on the complexity, risk and values involved. I strongly believe ‘the solution’ is the key – your service or product which best aligns to the requirement/contract in question. With this ‘solution’ the job is then to ensure your proposal or tender response clearly demonstrates and evidences why you are ‘the option’, not merely ‘an option.’

Bidding for these contracts is still very much part of the sales process and to bid effectively you need to sell! This can often be forgotten due to the nature of the tender and depth of requirements, which may expect you to cover:

  • Basic company information
  • Policies – including Health & Safety and other workplace policies
  • Finances / insurances
  • References / case studies
  • Technical delivery – the ‘how’ questions. Mobilisation, delivery, risk assessments, method statements, contract management, continuous improvement, added value, innovation, cost savings and value engineering
  • Management team – who is involved, why, and their role
  • Social Value – an extension of corporate social responsibility, community benefits, legacy

The key is to answer these requirements or questions in their formal structure, whilst ensuring you still SELL, and ensure your solution and its benefits (aligned to their requirements and potentially problems) are jumping off the page, as you would expect in a sales proposal.

What checklist should be used before submitting?

It is essential to have a clear review process when bidding for these types of contract. This starts with getting the basics right – ask yourself:

  • Is the bid compliant?
  • Are you clearly answering the questions in line with the evaluation criteria?
  • Does it have a single voice, a clear structure and approach to formatting? A single offer, not a cobbled together response from the 10 stakeholders involved
  • Has it been proof read?
  • Does it use Plain English, which will make sense to those evaluating the bid (rarely specialists)
  • What value are you adding?
  • Are you getting your ‘win themes’, specific unique selling points for the contract, across?

What might the bidder need to prepare for an interview?

Presentations and interviews are usually where the ‘bidder’ feels more comfortable, given that it is more of a traditional sales setting. While the vast majority of the tenders reserve the right to interview (especially for more significant contracts), we are seeing less of them. This could be a result of the rise of multi-supplier Framework Agreements, a formal tender to become approved to work with a buyer or group of buyers/contracting authorities. Then followed by call-offs/ mini competitions for contracts.

Unless otherwise stated a Public-Sector interview of presentation is usually a chance to clarify any points from within the bid. This then allows them to agree scores, from assumptions they may have read from the initial evaluation of your proposal.

If you are invited to present, you should:

  • Know the tender response inside and out
  • Ensure you have the right team in attendance – in addition to the Sales Lead, those who will be people involved in the delivery and at a practical level
  • Seek full clarity of what will be required in the presentation and, if it not clear from the tender documents, how it will impact the evaluation

Does the bidder’s track record count in public sector bidding?

Track record is important. You will be asked for three references, which will either be the subject of pass/fail questions (so you can be removed from the process based on these) or which will be scored, so will count towards whether you ultimately win the contract.

But beyond this, without a track record, providing clear evidence to support what you are proposing will be difficult. It depends, of course, on the market and competition involved, but one of the jobs of a good bid or proposal is to clearly highlight the risks involved and why your solution mitigates them, better than others. Track record, evidence of past performance can become crucial here.

How do bidders keep informed of deadlines or changes in process?

What’s great with the Public Sector is that they have to ensure they work in a way that is open, fair and transparent. This means any changes in deadline, any clarifications, and any changes to the process of documentation will be communicated to all bidders to ensure a level playing field.

Can a bidder monitor competitors’ contract wins?

For high-value contracts, Contracting Authorities are bound to publish a Contract Award Notice, detailing the name of the winning bidder. From this an organisation can map competitors based on geography and industry, that is, who they will be up against in a specific field or location (these can be found in TED).

Some private sector tools use this data and manipulate it to support a bidding organisation. For example, via Tender Pipeline, a bidder can monitor who is winning which contracts, then dig into the specific contracts of a single competitor and the likely re-tender dates. Using this data, a bidder could build this into their sales pipeline.

Lower-value contracts are harder to monitor, as while transparency is still an obligation, a formal Contract Award Notice does not have to be published. Some organisations will do so voluntarily, through the same sources noted above. However, for those that don’t there are few ways to access this important information.

Many organisations, such as Councils, publish their most recent Contracts Database on their websites. For those who don’t, Public Sector buyers are required to publish information on any spend over £500 on a monthly basis. From this, a bidder can source the data of who a specific buyer is working with, and for what. You can of course use a Freedom of Information (FoI) Request for this data.

Will a ‘No Deal’ Brexit impact this?

Public Sector bodies will still have to ensure they are open, fair and transparent, so we can’t see the process of working with these organisations changing too much.

If there is a no deal, the UK Public sector will no longer publish their higher-value tenders via OJEU), instead they will have to be advertised in a new UK e-notification service.

With many thanks to Thornton & Lowe for their insight.

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