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Good Tender Documents – More Important Than You Might Think

You may have read about the recent UK hospital trust tender that hit the media because of its questions about diversity and transgender issues. It turned out that the questions should not have been included in the document; it was human error rather than anything else.

I recently got involved with another National Health Service tender – we’re talking about a “collaborative buying” framework here, potentially worth hundreds of millions.  A consulting firm I’ve worked with over the years asked me to look at the tender documents, because they could not work out how on earth the buyer could possibly differentiate between the various bidders. Basically, there were no evaluation questions that actually asked the bidders to explain their core technical capability!

I read it and agreed that is was a very odd document.  No selection outcome could possibly have stood up to legal challenge, for a start. Luckily, I knew a senior procurement person in the buying organisation, so I called and explained the issue. A few days later, the tender was pulled. Pure human error again.

I was reminded of these cases during an Oxford POGO session last week. (POGO is a very worthwhile knowledge sharing club – more details here). The topic was capability in public procurement, and there were a number of interesting speakers. But it was Steve Schooner, Professor of Government Procurement Law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, USA, who brought up the issue of writing tender documents.

Too often that was seen as a pretty unimportant task, but he said (quite correctly) that is a key skill if you want to get the best potential suppliers, the best proposals and ultimately the best outcomes from your procurement and suppliers.

He also said that “no-one should be allowed to write a public sector tender document until they have sat supplier side and responded to a tender”!

I think that is a great idea and maybe should be a core training activity for developing public procurement professionals. Over the last decade or more, I’ve occasionally supported clients who were responding to (usually public sector) tenders. It has given me a lot of insight into what good procurement practice looks like – and more depressingly, what bad practice looks like. I’ve also worked buy-side of course and tried to help buyers to get it right! It is not always easy, but it is always important.

As well as the contribution of this stage in the process in terms of final outcomes, there is another factor to consider. The tender documents you issue are probably the most direct and often the most widely-read manifestation of your procurement function’s competence.  

You can claim to be a world-class team, you can win lots of awards, but if potential suppliers read your tender and think “what a load of old rubbish this is”, then more than anything that will be what informs their view of you. The same often applies with internal stakeholders. If there are non-procurement colleagues involved in a procurement process, and they see that the procurement professional doesn’t know how to produce good material, or (even worse) the stakeholder starts to get calls from frustrated potential suppliers, then this is very bad news for your internal reputation.

Going back to the beginning, I spoke to a senior person involved in the “controversial” case of the diversity questions. We’ve learnt two things, he said. Firstly, we need more and better training for all our staff who are involved in producing tender documents. And secondly, “we need better quality assurance before material goes out of the door”.

Often top procurement executives feel they are too busy to read tender documents, or that it is  a low-value task for someone of their seniority, skills and experience. Below their pay grade, as it were. But if that is your view, just remember – a lousy tender document has the potential to trash your team’s reputation more widely and faster than just about anything else.   

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