Trainer's tip: The good, the bad and the ugly of tendering

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Beware of what you ask for! Margaret Glossop opened a can of worms when she asked for trainers' experiences of local authority invitation to tender documents. Several trainers gave their honest opinion on the complex and frustrating ITT process, and how it could be better for everyone.

Harvey Bennett says his experience has been very discouraging:

With questions aimed at large organisations when small consultancies could equally do the job, and questions on our last three years' of accounts which, in my view, are unnecessary.

The specification of the work required and the outcomes expected from the work to be done have often been woolly.
Some of the tenders that I have responded to have looked suspiciously like a means of 'picking the brains' of tenderers... which may explain the wooliness mentioned above.

Tender documents can be very laborious and time consuming to complete.

It would be rather nice to get feedback on outcomes on promised dates. It seems to be a feature that the timetables indicated to tenderers aren't stuck to. On at least three occasions I have had to chase up to get confirmation of the outcome!

Also valued would be feedback on the tender itself: what was good and what wasn't. Only one out of 12 tenderers in the public sector has actually done this in a systematic way. With the other three that could be bothered to give feedback, it has been minimal and generally of no value i.e., no learning points to carry forward to the next tender opportunity.

Tom Boydell advises:

It's hard to get contracts without some form of competitive tender. This is understandable but clients can certainly do quite a lot to make it less painful for themselves and for providers. So it's really good to see somebody seeking guidance on how to make it a better experience all round.
Like Harvey we have had a number of frustrating experiences with such tenders. These include:

  • Short lead time – often as little as two weeks - for what can be major job (writing a good tender that is). I would say at least a month should be allowed. This is even more critical over holidays – for example I have just been given 10 days to write a major proposal – during August, a peak holiday period. Another example was one that allowed three weeks but the closing date was 27 December – from an organisation that was completely closed between 24 December and 5 January!
  • On the other hand the potential client often delays their decision by weeks or even months – without informing the tenderers
  • As Harvey says, the quality of feedback – if any – is often not very helpful
  • Online tendering can be convenient but the portals are sometimes difficult to navigate
  • It is irritating to be told, as in one case we recently had, that tenders have to be completed online, but that five hard copies, including the accounts, policies etc. also have to be delivered by hand!
  • Formal tendering may appear to be a fair way of obtaining a good proposal at a good price. In practice there's no such thing as a free lunch, so the not inconsiderable cost of tendering is factored into everybody's pricing structure. Furthermore, a good project often requires a detailed dialogue between client and provider – dialogue that is very difficult within the constraints of a proforma – especially as in a recent experience in which the ITT said that "due to the low budget" (which was £10,000) no questions from tenderers would be answered
  • It is very helpful if the client gives an indication of the budget – time and/or money
  • Organisations that invite a lot of tenders often use cut and paste and it's not uncommon to have errors, in the form of contradictory dates – e.g., recently an ITT sent out in June with the instruction to complete it by the end of April! This doesn't give a good impression!
  • Specifications can be vague and ambiguous
  • If sole traders or small companies are indeed likely to have a reasonable chance it is helpful if the client makes this clear. Similarly, the converse is true – some clients have a policy of not working with a supplier whose turnover is less than a certain amount: it would be useful to be told this!
  • Graham O'Connell adds:

    I perfectly understand the need for fair competition in pursuit of best value - the principle is sound - and the need for carefully regulated processes in the public sector. Unfortunately, in practice, there are all too often poorly crafted ITTs, one-sided processes, too much jargon, too little professional sense (professionalism combined with common sense) or, worst of all, a flawed concept behind the decision to commission the training in the first place.

    Here are some tips for the ITT:

    There are some elements that should be clear, definitive and fundamental. Typically this might include:

    • your organisational context
    • the target audience
    • your ultimate outcomes and measures of success
    • the subject areas or competencies
    • the learning objectives
    • any qualification requirements, and
    • any business-critical completion date

    There are some elements that may benefit from indicative data or a light steer. Typically this might include:

    • estimated numbers to be trained
    • desirable outcomes not set out in objectives (e.g., to help the organisation to move more towards a learning culture)
    • any methods/options that should be avoided, and
    • any factors that you feel are important for success

    Some aspects are best left to the supplier to recommend, though the decisions would still remain with you. This might include:

    • the mix of methods
    • group size
    • duration
    • number of trainers (e.g., for a course)
    • the sequence of events
    • any development work, and
    • how to add value

    Be assertive with your procurement advisors. I know that they sometimes say things have to be done a certain way but I have often found that their understanding of best practice is not as good as it might be. If you hit a problem, ask them for creative but legitimate ways around it. If they say there aren't any, then send them away to find examples through their online communities (e.g., IDEA), CIPFA or OGC.

    And challenge yourself too - is your needs analysis robust enough, do you know enough about quality - real quality - to assess that (not relying on IS0, IiP etc.), and do you have the right criteria to assess all the critical factors for success and the longer term value they might add.
    It is a complex business.

    View the original posting:

    Help with tender documents
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