Following on from my blog post entitled “The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Public Sector Tendering”, I thought it would be helpful to share some of my experience of what Contracting Authorities usually look for in public sector tenders in Northern Ireland. The idea being, that if you know what questions are commonly asked, you can prepare for tendering to a large extent in advance, without having a specific opportunity in mind. This will increase your chances of success when a tender that you wish to submit does come up, as it improves your readiness to respond and it becomes a much more controlled process, rather than scrabbling around trying to find relevant information within a specific timeframe.
First of all, it is useful to understand how tenders are typically structured. Most will have three sections: qualification, technical and commercial. Generally, the qualification section will be pass or fail questions, which cover general business information to ensure that you are a credible and legitimate business. You must usually pass all of these questions, in order for your technical and commercial sections to be considered. The technical ‘envelope’, as it is often called, will assess your relevant experience and ability to fulfil the contract and the commercial section will be the purely financial aspects of the contract.
In my experience, there are six common themes in requirements, regardless of the contract nature or size or the tendering body:
I’ve chosen to start with experience as I don’t think I have ever come across a tender that doesn’t want to know about your previous experience. You will almost always be asked to provide evidence of previous experience of supplying products or services that are similar to those required by the Contracting Authority. Usually they will be looking for relevant experience within a timeframe, normally within the last three years. Often they will want details about specific contracts, rather than general experience, so you will need to be able to select a number of clients, typically three, that you have previously supplied with a similar product or service. Details often requested include your clients’ business names (and sometimes contact details so that they can check references) and a description of the project – what it entailed, the size and scale of the project, the value of the contract, how long you held the contract for, etc.
The Contracting Authority will want to have confidence that you have the necessary resources to fulfil the contract, in terms of staffing and equipment required. For example, in a scenario where clothing embroidery was expected to be a large part of the contract, the Authority would need to be sure that you had access to enough embroidery machines and machine operatives to embroider large orders within the given timeframe. In a situation where a product, such as vehicle parts, are simply to be moved from a warehouse, the Contracting Authority will want detailed information on delivery drivers and vehicles available to move the goods.
a) Personnel Resource
Questions surrounding personnel are variable from tender to tender regarding the level of detail requested, but will generally have two elements: staffing levels and staff competency.
Questions around staff levels will range from general organisational size and structure, to very specific information about individuals, which could include submission of individuals’ CVs or certificates of achievement to prove skills and experience.
If there are specific individuals named within the tender that are put forward as the main personnel resources to work on the project, the tender could even probe into your contingency plans should the main resources specified be absent (due to illness, holidays, resignation, etc).
Whichever way personnel resource questions are worded, the underlying objective is to convince the Contracting Authority that you have the required manpower, skills and capacity to adequately meet their needs.
If your product or service provision requires specialist equipment, the tender may specify tools or machinery that you must confirm you possess, or it may ask you to provide information on equipment that you believe to be relevant. They might also ask questions about the safety practices and maintenance schedules relating to the equipment to satisfy themselves that they are dealing with a professional and credible organisation working within legal Health & Safety parameters.
Ultimately, the Contracting Authority will want to have confidence that you possess, or can access, all equipment necessary to fulfil the contract, and that it is safe and legal.
In some cases, the Contracting Authority will have their own procedures that they will ask you to confirm acceptance or understanding of, but in others they will ask you to provide details of your project management and implementation plans.
You could be asked to provide specifics regarding your ordering procedures, approach to delivery of goods or services, project management plans, points of contact, team roles, and so on.
Whilst this question can be quite bespoke to individual tender requirements, it is something that you can work on in advance if you have set working procedures and workflows.
4) Product Specifications, Service Levels & Warranties
Whilst a lot of product or service specific requirements will be bespoke to individual contracts, you can prepare in advance by having historical specifications and service level agreements stored in one place that you can draw upon when required. This should be something that you are doing within your day-to-day business anyway, but if not I would recommend that implementing a robust record keeping system is something you look to do as a matter of priority.
In preparation for this type of question you could also collate any sales collateral that you have into a central location, if you have not already done so, in order that you can easily source product information as and when required.
Finally, product warranties or guarantees of workmanship could be included in this section, as this is something that most tenders will require as well.
5) Policies, Accreditations, Insurances & Risk Assessment
These questions can often be pre-requisites and therefore may fall into the qualification section of the tender. In preparing for tendering, you can build up a bank of information relating to these items, which might include:
You should seek to have documented policies as follows:
- Health & Safety
- Diversity & Equal Opportunities
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- Staff Development / Training Plans
Whilst this can seem daunting, you don’t always have to have pages and pages of content for the policy document. Often you do lots of these things anyway, it is just useful to have it written down in one place as a formal document. For example, if you carry out a pre-delivery inspection or do randomised quality auditing, make sure it is documented and traceable and this then makes the basis of a formalised quality assurance policy. It is also good practice to have some form of each of the above policies for your business anyway, and in some cases, there is in fact, a legal requirement to have one for your business.
An increasingly common policy being asked for, in light of COVID-19, is the requirement for a Business Continuity Plan. Many public sector tenders are now requiring evidence of a regularly tested business continuity plan, to assure them that you will be fit to fulfil your obligations over the lifetime of the contract.
Likewise, proving social value is becoming mandatory for most public sector contracts. Here is an extract from a September 2020 article published by the Cabinet Office:
“Government departments will use the social value model to assess and score suppliers on the wider positive benefits they bring by delivering the contract. This will mean that value for money for the taxpayer can be maximised while also building a more resilient and diverse supplier base.”
Sometimes the requirement for the policies as outlined above can be negated by having accreditation to a recognised standard. For example, you will not necessarily need to have a separate quality assurance policy if you possess accreditation to ISO 9001, or an environmental policy if you have ISO 14001, or an equal opportunities policy if you have something like Investors in People.
Cyber Essentials is now becoming mandatory for many government contracts.
This section might also cover membership to respected trade associations relevant to your industry, such as the Vehicle Builders & Repairers Association if you are a car accident repair centre, or the Federation of Master Builders or National House-Building Council if you are in the building trade.
If you don’t have a particular accreditation but are working towards it, don’t be afraid to ask a clarification question to see if you can still go forward with proof of progress towards the standard. Since the tender process typically takes months from ITT to contract award, you could well have your accreditation completed before the contract commences.
Most tenders will specify minimum insurance levels required, and many will ask for proof that you comply with their requirements. Again, relevant business insurances are often legally required but at very least are good business practice. At the time of tendering, if you do not have the level of cover required, you can submit a letter confirming that, if you are successful in securing the contract, you will seek to uplift the values at that stage.
d) Risk Assessment:
As well as having the reassurance of policies, accreditations and insurances, Local Authorities and Government Bodies will want to ensure that they are purchasing from low risk, professional organisations. This could be regarding relevant safety standards over and above general Health & Safety policies. For example, safety standards and policies in relation to food preparation, hazardous substances, child protection or data protection. In particular, when dealing with emergency services or government departments, personnel security and confidentiality will be of utmost importance. If you can demonstrate policies, procedures, certification or other ways of minimising risk, such as robust IT security or CCTV systems, these are areas that would enhance your offering.
Tenders may require actual risk assessments to be carried out by a competent person, but generally this would be at a later stage, once a contract has been awarded.
In this section of your tender preparation file, you could keep copies of certificates, dates of expiry, values of cover (in the case of insurances), etc.
Timescales will normally hold a significant weighting in the procurement scoring system. After all, a low price will be worthless to the client if you cannot supply the goods when they are ordered, or cannot attend a service request when needed. To prepare for tendering you should assume that timescales relevant to your industry, product or service will be covered in your response, whether this be product delivery lead times or service provision callout or turnaround times. A good response to this question will be able to provide evidence, so if you can quantify or prove your timeframes it would be ideal.
One final area to cover is that of pricing. The largest proportion of public sector procurement is based on the concept of the Most Economically Advantageous Tender (MEAT). Whilst this, technically, means the best value for money, there is generally a heavy weighting on price in the evaluation structure. It is therefore easy to be drawn in to a bidding situation where it is a race to the bottom on price.
Knowing your expectations and limitations regarding pricing is important, and sometimes it is better to walk away from a contract than agree to trade for rates that are much lower than you are comfortable with. Of course, the security that you can gain with public sector work, because you will be fixed in for a minimum term, can make a lower rate appealing but make sure you know what you are committing to before submitting the tender. Unfortunately, it is only through experience that you will learn where your rates need to be to be successful, and this is certainly something that you should seek to receive feedback on at the award stage, whether you are awarded the contract or not.
Although tenders can initially seem daunting, in reality, there are a few core areas that you are likely to be asked about, and can therefore prepare for in advance. Having a centralised ‘bank’ of information pre-prepared can go a long way in easing the challenge of completing a tender when a relevant public sector opportunity comes up. Furthermore, putting the effort in to collating a lot of the above information makes good business sense anyway, and can also assist in preparing for private sector sales pitches as well.
We have years of invaluable experience in public sector tendering and can help you navigate the process. If you would like support to get started or to improve your success in public sector procurement, find out more about our tendering support service here.
P.S. Are there any other common questions that you would add to the list? If so, let me know in the comments.
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