Back in the early 2000s when I was working at the BBC I was starting to have to write a whole series of “Requests for Proposals” – documents outlining a particular need that we were looking for a supplier to fill.

Being a diligent sort, I wanted to find a course to go on to learn about what I was doing. But I couldn’t find anything. It was, remember, the early 2000s, a time when everything wasn’t yet on the Internet. But what I did find was a proposal-writing course, and it seemed as good an idea to understand what it was that potential suppliers were being trained to do to solicit business to get better at running those processes.

I suppose that looking from the other side is something that has become a stock tactic for me throughout my career, and after my recent job change I once again make the shift from client to supplier. And as a result once again find myself writing proposals rather than issuing requests for them.

For public sector organisations in the UK, the approach to finding suppliers has changed a fair bit in my career. Everything used to be up to the client, but these days there are myriad purchasing frameworks that allow for the compliant purchasing of goods and services.

A framework in simple terms is a shared marketplace where clients and suppliers are brought together through the medium of a consistent process, run by a third party, for matching needs to products and services. It’s like matchmaking, but for government agencies and computer software. So not like matchmaking at all on second thoughts.

I first got to experience frameworks when I was working as a freelance consultant in the 2010s. I worked for government organisations issuing needs through a framework. I worked as an associate for potential suppliers responding to need requests. I even did a little bit of work with the Crown Commercial Service who manage a number of the frameworks.

In my time at RHP I introduced the concept of using the DOS framework for running a couple of big tendering exercises – one for a digital services partner to manage and develop our website, and one for a business systems partner to provide our core back-office systems.

Today, literally today, I’m working with some colleagues to complete a first-stage application for a piece of work with a government body.

One of my colleagues yesterday said it would be interesting to hear what it’s like on the receiving end of a framework process, so here are some reflections…

A framework process can, unless the need is remarkably niche, generate a very large number of responses. They tend to fall into one of three categories:

  • there are the “throw mud at a wall” suppliers who churn out low-quality responses to presumably a high volume of processes on the chance that they might get through to the later stages of some of them. I can’t believe that they ever do.
  • there are the highly polished responses from suppliers big enough to staff an entire bid team whose sole purpose in life is to complete tender submissions. These may or may not be useful but you often have to scrape off the polish.
  • there are the ones that people have really put time into creating.

Suppliers who are completely unknown to a client may come through a process successfully. Interestingly it happened for me with the Digital partner at RHP and that was using a blind first sort (the evaluation team didn’t know the identities of any of the bidders). However, I imagine in most cases you’ll be more likely to be successful if you are somehow already known to the potential client – but being known isn’t a guarantee of success in any way.

The first sort process can be very, very arbitrary. Questions at this point tend to both be very general, and also very specific in how they are to be answered. There will be strict word count limits and these will be enforced – if you can’t follow instructions then don’t expect to be taken seriously, even if being disqualified for using 101 words feels very unfair.

Also don’t think you can hack it by doing things like including URLs to lots more information. These qualifying questions are short for a reason and the likelihood is that external links simply won’t be read.

The process also reinforces the reality of how ambiguous the written word can be. How you interpret a question may or may not be the way in which the person who wrote it intended it to be understood. Spend some time thinking about different ways the question could be interpreted, particularly if incredibly vague terms like “Business Analysis” are used. This is where knowledge of the prospective client is most valuable.

There’s then a question about how the client has the knowledge to intelligently purchase? If they need a service how have they got the expertise to specify the service that they need? Do they have the skills and expertise to purchase in-house? Are they working with a specialist consultant? Are they using services like Gartner? Are they just winging it?

If you think writing a framework application can be bad, just imagine how draining it is to have to read a few dozen of the things. I’m sure that this impacts different people in different ways, but for me it just made me increasingly intolerant of silly mistakes as the process went on. Get your submission written by someone who can actually write well. You’d be amazed how many aren’t.

If there are lots of applications it’s draining.

For this reason, moderation of scores is important. People score individually but then go through a process to get to a consensus. Those discussions can be really useful to properly get a feel of different bids. The key learning there though – points aren’t simply averaged across all of the scorers..

With DOS I think there are generally 2 form-based stages and then a presentation stage. Stage one is simply qualification. It will be high level. The answers will be short. Stage two gets much more specific and will be where the real work is needed by prospective suppliers. It’s not until the presentation stage though that any real chemistry between people comes into play (and that’s been lessened a bit by the increased use of online meetings).

Finally, as a potential provider always keep in mind that the framework isn’t the client’s. Don’t blame them for silly restrictions (like word counts). It’s probably as frustrating for them too.

Right – back to the bid writing…

One thought on “On the other side

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