The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

The bid that stole Christmas

Every year for the last 10 years I’ve looked forward to winding down for Christmas. Maybe December will be a quieter month, and I can catch up on all of the things that have been left undone for the rest of the year when things are manic every day… 

Every year for the last 10 years I’ve been completely and utterly wrong. December is just as bad as every other month, and often even worse. 

There was the insurance client we had that launched new campaigns on Boxing Day every year, with a new contract required for each one. Then there was the last minute contract negotiation by conference call on Christmas Eve, while the rest of the office held the secret santa draw next to my desk. 

This year it’s a public sector tender process, on hold since the election, that has sprung back to life two weeks before Christmas. Somewhere in Whitehall a civil servant must be feeling a sense of quiet satisfaction at ruining several hundred people’s festive seasons… 

Public sector tenders, you see, are not like ordinary business transactions. They are enormous, unwieldy things that eat up entire days, weeks, months of productive time. They generate thousands and thousands of pieces of paper, devastating forests worldwide (possibly). They cost twice as much or more in committed resources as private sector tenders. And they are often entirely pointless. 

For example, a typical outsourcing contract that I deal with will run to around 100-150 pages of fairly widely spaced type, and I’ll take somewhere between three and six months over it. That combination of (relative) brevity and attention is anathema to civil servants, so the public sector issues contracts that run to 300 pages of tiny type, and gives you a week to submit your full response. 

Of course, you can’t give that response unless you know what the contract is for. Luckily, there’s a few hundred pages of operational and commercial requirements that you can read to find out. This, of course, is great news, as we would otherwise be forced to spend our free time going to Christmas parties, shopping for presents, and so on. 

But naturally it will all be worth it if our bid is successful, with a profitable contract and a government agency on our client list… Except that large public sector contracts are now let as “frameworks”, with several suppliers retained for work that may or may not be required, at some unspecified time in the future. And that you actually have to bid for again, in competition with the other suppliers that made it on to the framework. 

That’s worth repeating: we are committing all this time and resource in an effort to “win” a tender that merely confers the right to bid for unspecified work in the future. I find that I am able to contain my excitement about this process. 

There is a serious point here. I understand that it is the Government’s wish that more public sector contracts are let to smaller businesses, rather than to the usual suspects such as Capita and Serco. But the tender process for large contracts, with its sheer volume of documents, its complexity of bidding rules and contracts, and its demanding timescales, requires resources that even large companies such as my employer find it difficult to deploy. 

Some of this, no doubt, arises from public procurement rules (some EU-derived) and the need to ensure appropriate safeguards for public expenditure. But some of it is… well, maybe the other reasons for the excessive complexity and prolixity of government procurement are for another post. For now, I’d just like to have my Christmas back.

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