Ask the Expert

Bidding for Large Public Sector Opportunities

Question by: Spiros Kourkoulos

I have recently taken up a position as the Senior Bid Manager in a new business division and we are targeting some large Public Sector bids. I need to set up a bidding function based upon the APMP methodology and I have two questions:
1.  Should I recruit from within the business where I have some good project managers available, or should I look externally?
2. Are there any pitfalls I need to watch out for in the Public Sector market, which are not covered in the general best practice approach?


Spiros,

You ask some interesting questions and raise often overlooked issues.  We have been involved in many large Public Sector bids, mainly on the bidder side and sometimes on the evaluator side.  Worryingly, the optimum team issues seem to come up in the more complex bids again and again, usually with the wrong choices and outcomes.

I have put together a short compendium of situations we have experienced recently, which have had a large negative impact upon our client’s ability to deliver a high-scoring proposal.  The most important of these is getting the right person to manage the bid.

Using a Project Manager to Manage the Bid

Bid Managers are expensive.  Also, good ones are hard to find.  So why not use a Project Manager instead?  After all, a bid is just another sort of project, isn’t it?  And if the Project Manager can write parts of the response, we can save even more.

This argument usually leads to a bid which will ultimately fail.  The approach may have been successful in some large bids, but we are not aware of any that have.

Of course, the bid is a “project”.  It needs many of the best project management disciplines to bring it off successfully.  However, getting a complete document (with the best solution) out on time is not nearly enough to win in a Public Sector bid competition.  Your proposal must score sufficient points against the scoring system, as well.  This is what Project Managers are not so good at doing.

Bid Managers are trained to drive a disparate team of experts to produce complex proposal text.  They will get your document out on time.  In addition, they will ensure that to the best of their ability, the document will win according to the specific rules of the competition.  They will sense what the evaluator is looking for to score your bid highly.  Then they will get the bid authors to respond to this.  At the same time, like the Project Manager, they will drive the bid team to get its solution design right.

To win, a bid must resonate with the evaluators and their businesses’ needs.  The bid being complete and delivered on time is only a very small part of winning the competition.  A Bid Manager is trained to drive the entire process and not just the document creation.  Their perspective is vital for success.  A Project Manager is just not trained to think this way.

Our recommendation is never to use a Project Manager in a Bid Manager’s role.   You cannot prioritise technical or subject matter expertise over bidding ability.  If the bid is worth the investment of a bid team, you must have it led by someone who knows how best to drive that team to win and not just get a document out.

Losing the Bid Manager

Using an experienced Bid Manager is critical to achieving success in large Public Sector bids.  So, as soon as you dilute the ability of your Bid Manager to manage that bid, your win chance diminishes.

What normally happens is that key members of the bid team are pulled out to deal with “an urgent business problem”.  A “client issue” will demand immediate attention.  Typically, the Bid Manager may be left with no choice but to step in and cover the loss.  He or she must write those missing elements of the bid because no other expert can be made available at short notice.

What happens then is that the Bid Manager’s focus is lost from the key task that he or she must get right to make sure the bid is won; leading the bid.  As this often happens towards the end of the bid writing stage, the loss of direction at this critical point impacts the quality of the entire bid.  The Bid Manager may be able to put together some compelling text, but the quality of the remainder of the bid will be reduced.  As the quality of the bid decreases, so do the evaluation scores.

Neither can you use the Bid Manager in a large bid to lead the creation of the solution.  Of course, he or she must be involved.  However, if you need senior level SME direction, you should create a specific role for that within the team.  You must protect the Bid Manager’s ability to keep the high-level perspective across the entire bid activity.

Our recommendation is never to put a Bid Manager in the situation where they get bogged down in the solution detail.  You must protect the priority of the bid and the future of your business first.  Never take away the expert resources the Bid Manager needs to complete the solution before that expert’s contribution is complete.  You should have a risk strategy in place for the extraordinary and unexpected loss of key contributors.  Avoid the mitigation strategy of getting the Bid Manager to cover.  After all, you should be trying to assure the life of the entire company.  Winning bids is a very good way of doing this.

The Best Solution is Not Enough

In a Public Sector bid, even if you have the best solution on the planet for your customer’s needs, you may not win the contract.  You may have described it perfectly from a technical point of view and your solution may be just what the Public Sector customer wants.  You may have also provided the lowest price.  The customer might even prefer your solution, but still be unable to award you the contract.  Why?  Because you have not enabled them to score your bid highly enough.

In most large Public Sector procurement competitions, the contract is awarded following a team scoring different elements of the proposals.  These scores are moderated and then the evaluators calculate value for money, according to a set of rules.  The best value for money score is awarded the contract.

Of course, a good solution and a low price will tend to influence the outcome in your favour.  However, we have seen many best solution and lowest price bids fail.  Why?  Probably, the response has not addressed every element that is measured to be scored.  Legally, the evaluators are only allowed to interpret what has been written in the bid against the scoring criteria.  If you have not signposted the information they need to create a score in your bid response, the evaluator’s interpretation may not be what you expect.  If you have not addressed a question point, your score could be zero!

We believe that the best way to score highly is to take each of the scoring criteria measures and specifically address them in each question response.  This should be a clear part of the response to each question element, in addition to the solution description.  Then, you should include a paragraph stating the reasons why your bid should score highly in this specific area, clearly and concisely.  By this approach, the evaluator must give you high marks or, at least, a score worthy of your response.

If you do this, how can you lose?

Avoiding Customer Focus

Over the years, we have found that senior management, especially in “technically led” companies, have a big problem with Public Sector bids.  They and their team are so excited about what they can do for the client with their services and technology, that they write their entire bid response about how wonderful their solution is.  They forget one fundamental point: the client does not care about your company and what you can offer!  They are only interested in what you can do to the extent that it impacts upon their project and requirements.

The main thing that the decision makers (and the evaluators) want is to see is that you understand their business needs and that you have the best solution to address these.  They do not want to pay for all the other “wonderful” stuff you can do and they are not interested about how clever you are.

For any bid, the only things the decision makers are concerned about are the answers to:

  • Does this company really understand our business and the environment we must operate in?
  • Can we work with them? Will there be any clash of cultures?  Can we trust them with our business-critical processes?
  • What will the impact upon us be of working with them, in terms of the organisation, oversight and controls we will have to put in place?
  • If we select this company as our supplier and it all goes wrong later, will we (I) be held responsible for the choice?

These concerns will probably not be overtly included in the scoring criteria.  But they will underpin every part of the evaluation.

Ultimately, the only question to be answered is, “Why should we select this bid against all the others we have received?”.  If you cannot answer this question very clearly in your response, you do not deserve to win the contract (and most likely, you won’t win it).

To answer the ultimate question, we must focus our entire response on the customer (and not our business and what we can do).  Any part of the response which opens with our name or ‘we’, does not do this.  As soon as we are talking about what we can do and how we will do it, we have moved from solving the client’s issues to selling our solution to them.  This is not what the evaluators and decision makers want.

Not Balancing the Response

The problem we all have when we get a limit on the number of pages or words in a big bid, is that it is woefully insufficient for the description of the solution.  Or so all your technical experts will tell you!

However, the problem is much greater than this.  If you use all the words for the description of the solution alone, you will score very badly in the evaluation.  You must use adequate words to show you understand the customer’s key needs, to explain why you chose the approach you did and the benefits to the client.  You must add evidence that your solution will work for this customer and give its decision makers assurance that choosing you as a supplier is their best option.  Oh, and you need to describe the solution itself.

We believe that the best way to score points in a Public Sector procurement competition is to start by outlining the customer’s real needs.  Once you have shown you understand these, you can explain what you consider the best of a range of potential solutions will be.  You can set out why you have chosen the approach which is best for them.  Then you can detail your solution to do this, followed by the benefits the customer will get.

Your text should attempt to give assurance that this solution is the very best one for them.  It can do this by identifying where the approach has worked before and the benefits it created when it was used.  Finally, you should specifically detail the reasons for “Why you should choose us over all the other competitors” in this area of the client’s needs.  Give this a heading towards the end of the response so it is clear to the evaluators.

Tell the evaluators why they should select you and they can use this text to justify their decision up the line.  Otherwise they have to work it out themselves (which they might not be able to do as well as you can?).

Our rule of thumb; use 50% of the word or page count for the solution description.  Then use 50% to generate a good score against all these remaining scoring criteria points.

Overall

If you compete for a “must win” and large Public Sector contract, you should treat the bid generation process with the respect it deserves.  Seeking to shave costs and have the bid team cope with the day job as well as the bid, will increase the risk of you not winning.  Your business cannot afford to sacrifice the bid investment and the company’s long-term future for short term tactical decisions.  Everyone in your business must understand this.  Or, perhaps, they are the wrong people for your business?

If any of this resonates and you need our help to navigate through the challenges, please do get in touch.