Winning public sector business in Northern Ireland is like no other business opportunity you will ever come across. Tendering for local government and public authority work is notoriously arduous, but following a few simple steps can help to cut through the complexity.
1. Know Where to Look
Generally, there will be a central location where all public sector procurement opportunities are advertised. In Northern Ireland the main site is E-tenders NI and in Republic of Ireland it is E-tenders ROI. Some systems allow you to set up alerts for relevant tenders. CPV (common procurement vocabulary) codes have been developed by the European Union as a way of ensuring consistency in classification of public sector notifications. In some cases you can search CPV codes and set up alerts for those that you want to hear about. There are also sites such as TenderTap which, for a small fee, provide a consolidated list of opportunities from a wide number of tendering advertising sites.
However, many public sector organisations choose to advertise lower value contracts through their own channels, mainly on their own websites. This means that by only looking at the main tender websites there is a high possibility that you will be missing out on opportunities.
Some tenders are also awarded via pre-existing frameworks. In order to be invited to tender, you must apply to be on the initial framework and often these are only advertised every few years. In this case you will not be able to submit until the framework is readvertised, however, there are sometimes ways around this, like finding a supplier that is approved under the framework and collaborating with them as a sub-contractor. There are other benefits to this tactic as well, such as reduced risk because if you are not the main contractor, you will not be bound by all of the legal requirements – the main contractor will be liable.
Finally, there are two types of opportunity: a PQQ or an ITT. A pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) will sometimes precede an invitation to tender (ITT). The information that you supply at the PQQ stage will allow the procurement organisation to make a shortlist of potential suppliers. If you pass the PQQ stage successfully you can then be included in an invitation to tender. Often though it is the case that the tender will go straight to ITT stage; not all buyers use PQQs.
Start by identifying the organisations that you would like to work with and then approach them to make sure you know all of the channels that they use to advertise. For example, if you supply products related to the automotive industry, contact all authorities that operate vehicles, or if you only operate a local delivery service, contact those organisations that have a presence within your catchment area. When carrying out this investigation it can’t do any harm to ask if there are any relevant tenders coming up in the near future so that you can start preparing early for your submission. Look out for ‘Meet the Buyer’ events that bring those responsible for public sector procurement together at one event.
Consistency in Opportunity Checking
Once you have established how the authority advertises, be consistent with the checks that you carry out. For example, set aside half an hour on the same day every week to trawl through all channels to seek out opportunities. It is important to do this at roughly the same time each week, as tenders can move quickly and you risk finding out when it is too short notice to give the response the attention required. Also, you will sometimes find that there is a timeframe given to express interest in submitting a response. Any longer than one week between searches could mean that you miss these deadlines, even if the final submission date is weeks away.
2. Assess Viability
Completing a tender can be very time-consuming and generally requires input from many departments within an organisation, so assessing feasibility is an important first step. A first scan of all documents is generally not enough – there’s nothing worse than spending hours on a tender submission to realise halfway through that a particular insurance level or ISO standard is required that your organisation doesn’t have. It is therefore prudent, after an initial scan of the documentation, to read everything in full to ensure that there is nothing contained in the criteria that you cannot provide. Highlighting, making notes and flagging pages as you go helps in the long run as you can easily find sections to refer back to.
In many cases starting at the end is best when checking viability. All tenders will provide a scoring structure which outlines how responses will be assessed. This normally includes weightings to show which sections are most important to the Contracting Authority. If, for example, a tender is 70% weighted on price, and you know that your product or service is the most expensive on the market, the rest of your offering regardless of quality or service level is almost irrelevant and it is unlikely that you will be successful. You would be better putting your efforts into something more productive.
3. Clarify Everything!
Once you have determined that the opportunity is something that you can take part in, you need to then seek to understand exactly what is being asked. The instructions and documents that accompany tenders often use very formal language that sometimes requires a law degree to understand!
Most tenders will have a cut-off date for asking questions, which is usually well before the submission deadline, so it is important to understand the requirements and make clarifications as early as possible.
What Should you Clarify?
- Anything that could have an ambiguous meaning – make sure you find out which meaning the authority requires. It is OK to ask “do you mean x or y?”
- Anything that you don’t fully understand – ask for more detail or for the section to be rephrased.
- Anything that you feel doesn’t provide enough information. For example, if the tender states that the product should be made of a particular material and there are variations of that material, ask for clarification. The Authority may reply that any variation is fine or they may not have realised that there were alternatives and could make a decision at that stage.
- Where a product specification is outlined and there is something that you cannot supply, you can legitimately ask if an alternative will suffice. Often the department responsible for writing the tender will base their requirements on a pre-existing solution which may be outdated or specific to one manufacturer. In this circumstance you can present a case for an alternative. Do not assume that your alternative will be acceptable, you should always seek approval prior to submission.
- PRO TIP: In some instances you can challenge the requirements if, for example, you feel strongly that a stipulation is incorrect or unfair. For example, I once found a tender that required membership of a specific trade association that we did not have as it was not relevant to our industry. The reason that this happened was because the tender was divided into ‘lots’ which segregated cars and commercial vehicles and the association was only applicable to the car industry. We were able to explain this and have the requirement removed from the commercial vehicle lot. The authors of tenders are only human and mistakes or oversights can occasionally occur so don’t be afraid to tactfully explain the errors.
How to Clarify
Generally, clarifications take place via a dedicated messaging function. This ensures that a transparent conversation trail is available and to make sure that no supplier is given more or different information to the rest. Usually the tendering body will share all questions and answers anonymously with all those that have expressed an interest to guarantee a fair playing field for all participants.
When raising a query, be specific and make it easy for the Authority to identify information. Quote the document and paragraph that you are referring to, explain your issue and be explicit about the outcome that you require.
If you create a query and still do not understand the response, or you need further clarification, do not be afraid to keep asking. You are perfectly within your right to ask as many questions as you need to.
This part of the process can be tedious and it can be tempting to make your own interpretations, but tenders are assessed very strictly and any misunderstanding could void your entire application.
If the clarifications don’t uncover anything that would exclude you from submitting, it is only at this stage that you are then ready to start the application.
4. Allocate Responsibilities
As stated above, tenders often require collaboration, either between departments within a Company, or with partner Suppliers. At the outset you should create an action plan and share it with all of those that are required to provide information. Making the action plan SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) will ensure that all involved will be absolutely clear about what they are required to do and most importantly by when. Set deadlines for individual responses to be well before the tender closing date to give you time to collate, assess and go back for clarification if necessary.
5. Dot Every i and Cross Every t
I cannot stress the importance of attention to detail. You must answer every question and address every point that is requested. Failure to do so will, at best mean that you are scored poorly, or at worst, could void your submission entirely.
You should be deliberately blatant with your answers. Make it easy for the reader to see that you have given them what they asked. Also, when wording your response, it is beneficial to mirror the language used by the Authority, as it makes it easy for them to see that you have answered the question. For example, if you are asked to demonstrate your ability to respond within a four-hour period to requests for service provision, a good response will explicitly confirm that you can meet the timeframe. You might respond with “we confirm that our response time to requests for service provision is typically two hours, which falls well within the four-hour timeframe required by this tender. You could then say “this is evidenced by…” and outline some statistics from real life scenarios to support your response.
Look out for formatting restrictions, such as word limits and font styles and sizes. Often strict word limits are imposed for responses to certain sections and this can be coupled with a specified font style and size. This is partly to make the response manageable for the reader but also to ensure a fair playing field for all participants. If you exceed the word limit, anything that comes after the limit has been reached may be discounted from your submission. If there are no word limitations advised, then the length of your answer should be in proportion to the question weighting, i.e. you should put the most effort into the questions that are worth the most points.
Once you have finalised all sections of the tender response, have someone proof read for grammar, spelling, vocabulary and typos. Preferably this person will be familiar with the subject matter so that they can give a second opinion on the content.
Many platforms provide a percentage complete or number of questions answered function to show you whether you have missed anything. This is a useful final check to do before submitting.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this as it is the absolute most important thing to get right…DO NOT miss the deadline! Any submissions received after the closing date and time will be excluded, regardless of the reason and irrespective of whether it is only seconds after the cut-off.
PRO TIP: Most tender submission platforms allow for updated versions of a response to be uploaded at any time up until the deadline, so it can make sense to upload a final version as early as possible and then submit a refined copy afterwards. At least your initial version is sure to be received on time. This will also give you time to fix any errors that may present at the time of upload, for example, incorrect file types.
6. Ask for Feedback
My concluding advice is to always ask for feedback, whether you secure the contract or not. An extremely important part of the tendering process is gaining constructive feedback on what you did well or not so well as it will help you to improve for your next submission.
If you are considering your first steps into public sector tendering, you can read 6 typical questions that are asked in NI public sector procurement to help get you started.
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