The Joys of public sector Bidding!

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Public sector contracts are a lucrative business. You may not win many at first but this will change with experience in leveraging the systems and processes to gain competitive advantage. More doors will open as you become known.

For over 20 years we have helped people bid into the public sector but it is the most frustrating (and often non-intuitive) area of bidding to work in with strict and well-defined rules. Both procurement and bidders work hard to get around these rules and if they do, their competitors try to find out how and take them to court for doing so. If the court finds no wrongdoing, everyone builds their own workaround to circumvent the rules in future bids.

Then procurement teams change the requirements. Bids should NOT be all about providing quality goods and services the public sector needs; they must support the latest ecology, quality and social engineering agendas which make the buying department (or local politician) look good (e.g. eye-catching support for disadvantaged communities, numbers of wildlife rehoused, etc).

So you refocus your business strategy to keep up and face another challenging hurdle – word limited responses to heavily worded questions. The responses in a recent multi-million pound public sector bid were limited to 600 words (difficult but manageable) – but several questions were 300 words and one was 400! At least all bidders had to contend with the same restrictions.

From my experience, the biggest and most successful public sector bidders have dedicated public sector sales teams, with bidding support focused on these types of bids. They understand the many nuances of competing in this field; many have their own well developed bidding tools and processes. They choose from a selection of strategies developed to best meet the latest requirement. Interestingly, the majority seem to value APMP accreditation, even if they do not specify it when they are recruiting or use the APMP methodology internally.

But some provide bid support as a central resource (not sales-integrated). This can be a problem if bean-counters in some multinational HQ decide costs are too high and cuts are needed. They see bids as just another project, and assume the Project Managers already in place will be able to run their bids with support from SMEs in the business. No need for overpriced bid managers/teams!

In our business, we love it when this happens. The client’s bid performance crashes and we are asked to help put it right. We establish a public sector bid team inside the sales function, fully integrating its activities into the communication plan for each qualified opportunity.

So what’s my advice to a company wanting to get into winning public sector contracts? Entry barriers are significant and going after public sector contracts is not a business decision to be taken lightly.

For small contracts, you may get the impression the ‘playing field’ is not level and buyers’ personal agendas are followed at the expense of fair competition. Legal redress for any procurement or bidding shenanigans is unlikely; it’s just too expensive (though the threat of going to court can sometimes sort an issue). Your best protection is to strictly follow the precise rules, requirements and constraints of the ITT. Do not embellish the responses or add in text which is not absolutely relevant to the exam questions set. Only address what the procurement team ask and show you are meeting their needs, not selling what you have. They will be unable to drop you from the competition as a result of a minor non-compliance.

For big contracts, following the rules is not enough. You have to ‘game’ the entire system or you will be wiped out by a competitor. Of course, you need a sound, credible, adequately described solution to remain in the competition – though this is probably not where the final decision will be based.

Someone in your team will need to review the reporting requirements to uncover biases or weaknesses. Start with the price reporting template and create a pricing and solution design strategy that will exploit any weaknesses (e.g. when you know the activities or services to be priced against will be different from what is actually required). Find the people in your organisation who are good at this type of analysis, put them to work and give them a pay rise – it will be worth it!

Next, work out how every section of your response addresses each point in the scoring system, dealing directly with the points which will generate maximum marks. The scoring system may contain vague and unquantifiable tests, e.g. “excellent levels of proof” or “delivers the highest confidence”, so play these words back to the evaluators in the leading and final words of your response.

Finally, let it be known that you will not accept any impropriety in the competition. Make it clear that you will robustly challenge any selection decision which is not entirely justified.

My two top recommendations for all contracts are:

  1. Critically review and score the written response from the evaluator’s perspective prior to submission. Try to understand their approach to scoring your work and the rules they must follow. This will provide a benchmark for investigation if your internal score is very different from the evaluator’s.
  2. Do NOT use AI to generate text. AI is limited, it cannot innovate and is fairly easy to spot. The client wants innovation and your brain is the best tool for the job.

Go on, have a go! You may be one contract away from a brand new sportscar and a holiday home in Tenerife.

This article was written by Andy Haigh .

Andy is an expert in bidding and tendering, specialising in competitive formal bids into EU Public Sector organisations. He is an authority on EU procurement legislation and can bring all these capabilities together to initiate and drive major complex bids through to a successful completion.

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