Meet the Buyer North 2020: Questions and Answers

Live Q&A Panel with the Supplier Development Programme's Expert Trainers

Part of the agenda for the Meet the Buyer North 2020: Live Virtual Event on 2 September included a session entitled, "Helping You Bid Better: Live Q&A Panel with the Supplier Development Programme's Expert Trainers." Suppliers were able to ask questions to the Supplier Development Programme's Panel, chaired by Gillian Cameron, SDP Programme Manager.

The panellists included Julie Caughey of Caughey Solutions Ltd, Owen Patterson of Intend Business Development Ltd, and John Clark of JI Management Ltd., who are all active trainers for the Supplier Development Programme, as well as Kenny Govan, Senior Procurement Officer for Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, who gave a buyer's perspective.

Suppliers are encouraged to watch the full SDP Question and Answer Session on YouTube.

Due to limitations on time, some questions submitted by suppliers during the event were not answered by the panel. However, answers to these questions were answered post-event by SDP's trainers and are featured below.

Please note: If you have a query relating to a specific procurement exercise, you should contact the buyer in the first instance. These answers are not a substitute for legal advice, which bidders are advised to seek if they have any queries regarding the processes and procedures.

Questions and Answers

Why when a tender is returned do we have to submit our insurance docs etc, when they are uploaded to Excel/PCS ?

In most circumstances the response to the ESPD only asks for confirmation that you hold, or commit to obtain, insurance at the requested levels. Usually, insurance documents are not needed until there is a commitment to award you a contract. Where the documents are available online, they don’t usually have to be submitted as such.

How do we ensure the people evaluating the tender are competent in the field of which they are judging? I return tenders for play parks and it becomes a pretty picture competition.

Organisations endeavour to ensure that technical aspects of a tender process are evaluated by appropriate personnel from the front-line service relevant to the exercise. Procurement (and potentially legal) staff will normally oversee this process to audit evaluations end ensure fairness of treatment across the bidders. Where technical merits appear neck and neck, then aesthetics and practicalities of different solutions may come into play.

In an open procedure, if the ESPD is deemed as a fail the buyer won’t go on to read the tender, but as standard should I receive feedback on the ESPD submission?

Many of the ESPD responses relate to certification that you meet the qualifying criteria. These are not really capable of critique, as such, other than on a Pass/Fail basis. However, most exercises require bidders to provide details of past projects for reference and there may be scope for seeking feedback on this aspect if it is not initially offered by the buyer.

To ensure you're answering all questions correctly on the ESPD, you may want to consider registering for a free place on Helping you Bid Better; examine the ESPD question by question. It's a free training webinar from the Supplier Development Programme that aims to help SME suppliers in Scotland answer the ESPD in a relaxed, step-by-step manner.

How beneficial it is for community benefits responses to make reference to the Social Value Portal and TOMS?

If reference to the Social Value Portal and Themes Outcomes & Measures (TOMS) provides greater depth and strength to the Community Benefits aspects of your tender, then they could be beneficial. However, in Scotland, the legislative focus is on “sustainable procurement” under the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014. Like its English equivalent, the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, this places an obligation on public sector bodies for systematic delivery and reporting of social value in the Scottish public sector.

Surely a community benefit is open to interpretation to what the contract award is, if I win a play park contract, an idea of community benefit would be that we use a local contractor, donate to a local charity, hold an opening ceremony and raise the profile of the area.

Delivery and measurement of Community Benefits against short-term contracts, particularly those of a one-off nature, can be very difficult. Use of local sub-contractors and the other types of measures in your example would certainly be candidates. Some Local Authorities also have menu style pick-lists from which suitable measures can be chosen. In all cases, what is being asked for should be relevant and proportionate to the contract in question.

If we bring in a new sub-contractor during the term of the contract, should they complete the ESPD before doing any work?

Unless there was specific provision within the Contract Award that allowed for a change of sub-contractor, it is likely that introducing new contractors post-award could only be undertaken with the express consent of the Buyer. In normal circumstances, that would require appropriate vetting and qualification of the new operator. This would most likely be achieved through completing a new ESPD.

The Supplier Development Programme offers two specific training modules that concentrate on this topic: Tender Procedures and the ESPD and Helping you Bid Better; examine the ESPD question by question. Suppliers based in Scotland from micro, small and medium sized businesses are encouraged to register a free place on an upcoming course to ensure you understand every step of the ESPD.

Do you think people are asking so many questions because they don't fully understand what they themselves are asking for especially when it comes to things like printed matter etc?

The object of any procurement exercise is to achieve delivery of and end service at a reasonable cost which represents Value for Money to the public purse. That normally involves completion of an ESPD together with a “Technical Envelope” response to the specification and quality aspects, and a “Commercial Envelope” response on price and contractual aspects. Predominantly the specification and technical questions will be generated by the user department, usually following research or market engagement where areas of difficulty might be involved. Potential suppliers should always seek clarification from the buyer on any ambiguity within a specification.

We are an AI/data analytics company based in Ireland. Are buyers open to engage companies that are not head-quartered in Scotland?

Statistics show that a significant proportion of contracts by Scottish buyers through Public Contracts Scotland are awarded to businesses outside Scotland. Obviously, those opportunities above the current Threshold are advertised in OJEU, but registration through PCS as a potential Supplier is open to all. Clearly it would be more difficult for remote suppliers to compete for services which could not be delivered remotely.

Some tenders are based on cost to buy and not on long-term running costs. Many equipment can be more expensive to buy but cheaper to run. Many tenders do not take this into consideration so that ongoing costs for the customers are much higher for a relatively small initial purchase gain. Is there anything that can be done about this?

Actually, the days of a race to the lowest price are pretty much behind us and the search is more about finding the Most Economically Advantageous Tender. That is the right balance of Quality and Cost which produces good value for money. Not necessarily the lowest price or the highest quality, but the optimum combination of both. This is most often judged across the full life of the project, on the basis of the Whole Life Cost of ownership. Instances of the type you mention should be very rare and subject to challenge.

In the private sector, we put great store in making sure the chemistry is right before we provide our services. Similar work in the public sector can't do this because of the strict tendering process. Do you think the public sector is poorer for that lack of face to face discussion whilst looking for suppliers or partners?

It is not strictly true that the tendering process precludes looking for the right ‘Chemistry’. Where it is considered necessary, many buyers will incorporate some form of interview or presentation opportunity within the process before finally selecting a winning bidder. This is more likely to be applied in some types of Consultancy, IT Development or Graphic Design contracts.

How easy is it to get feedback from a submission?

Where the process involves a Standstill Period, all unsuccessful bidders should receive an “Award Decision Notice” (or Standstill Notice). This should provide a summary of reasons, outlining the advantages of the winning bid over their losing bid, together with the relative scores of each, possibly broken down to Quality and Price. In addition, where a party submits a written request for feedback this should be provided within 15 days. Feedback should cover; reasons for rejection; any reasons for not meeting performance or functional requirements; characteristics and relative advantages of the tender selected. Buyers are recommended to release as much information as possible with only limited restrictions.

You can learn more about the process by registering for free training from the Supplier Development Programme. Both Improving Your Bid Score and Seeking Feedback and Improving Your Score cover this topic.

How can companies take services to demonstrations/proof of concepts fast? (i.e. pre-tender)

Unless a buyer has requested the development of a POC Demonstrator as part of a tender selection process for a particular project, the expectation would be that suppliers were bringing forward solutions that were ‘ready for the market’ – even if they involved a degree of innovation.

Given that change is happening at lightning speed e.g. working from home in scale etc., can contract terms be made shorter? e.g. 3 months to 12 months as 3-5 years otherwise would guarantee obsolescence?

Nothing is as unpredictable as the future. Last Christmas, most of what has happened in 2020 would be considered unbelievable, but here we are. Many public authorities have been able to pivot to home working relatively quickly and taken to teamworking through various software platforms. However, many of the service delivery contracts in place now and needed for the future are still likely to need a longer lifespan than 12 months. Where existing contracts might prove operationally unworkable, most will have the means to terminate and re-tender. That process of itself will start to develop the necessary flexibility for future working as solutions become apparent.

You may also wish to read the Scottish Government's Scottish Procurement Policy Notes, particularly on Supplier Relief and Notes regarding recovery and transition from the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are currently delivering a public sector contract, you can request Supplier Relief from the buying organisation.

Do you think that Public tenders are missing out on good providers due to the amount of hoops that need to be jumped through on the PCS-tender website to submit a bid? Time spent vs returns isn't worth it for some suppliers?

Like any market a supplier wishes to compete in, there will be a trade off between input effort and successful outcome. That is why the decision to bid or not is probably one of the most important. Realistic assessment of your chances of success is a must, before starting to expend the effort. The “hoops” necessary have been drastically simplified over the last decade, particularly with the introduction of the European Single Procurement Document (ESPD) and its emphasis on self-certification.

That said, there still needs to be an adequate business probity check and risk assessment process to ensure the chosen supplier has the capability to deliver. Failure of a contract for a public body usually leaves an end-use service not being delivered, and a very urgent need to appoint a replacement, together with associated reputational risk to the organisation. Hence the seemingly cautious approach.

The Supplier Development Programme touches upon the "Bid/No Bid" process in Introduction to Tendering, and more fully explores the issue in Improving Your Bid Score and Seeking Feedback and Improving Your Bid. SME businesses based in Scotland are encouraged to register for this free training to learn more.

Scottish Government currently have a PIN out in relation to the potential of setting up a framework for Civil Engineering Works and Associated Services (including Roads and Roads Maintenance). What rationale would exist that would prevent specialist contractors from tendering as a main contractor rather than having to link with other contractors.

If you have a query relating to a specific procurement exercise, you should contact the buyer in the first instance. This answer is not a substitute for legal advice, which bidders are advised to seek if they have any queries regarding the processes and procedures.

Against any given contract opportunity it is open to businesses that are large enough to ‘go it alone’ and bid for the whole task, taking on all of the risks involved. Alternatively it is open to seek suitable partners amongst whom the task (and risk) can be shared. That could be on the basis of Prime and Sub-contractor, Consortium or Joint Venture as they saw appropriate.

The PIN referred to concerns a future procurement that has been developed in consultation with the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Scotland (CECA Scotland). It will be tendered on a geographical basis and include multi-value and multi-supplier Lots. Depending on the range of areas, values and tasks it is still possible that businesses might choose any one of several business constructs under which to participate.

Recently we had 5 questions with circa 2 pages per answer; that was great. However, to answer the question on the Cyber Security - it took 8 pages to answer. (We supplied the initial 3 and then were asked supplementary questions which took 5 to answer.)

In all cases there is a requirement for the depth and rigour of the selection process to be proportionate to the complexity of the project and its risks. In this case it is possible that being certified to ISO 27001 would have provided a full answer to that question and gained maximum marks for that section. In the absence of such a certification, being given the opportunity to provide a suitable narrative to outline your processes is usually seen as a reasonable alternative. This is often applied to areas such as ISO 9001, 14001, 18001, etc.

Cyber Security Procurement Support Tool

The Scottish Government has released the Cyber Security Procurement Support Tool which seeks to improve supply chain cyber security by helping public sector bodies adopt a more consistent approach to cyber security during procurement. The Tool will also help suppliers to assess their cyber security against authoritative National Cyber Security Centre guidance.

According to the Scottish Government:

  • Completing a questionnaire can require time and effort, depending on (i) the risk profile of a contract and (ii) how well you understand your organisation’s cyber resilience arrangements.
  • It is vital that you leave sufficient time for your organisation to complete the questionnaire ahead of any procurement deadlines.

All suppliers may be asked to use the Tool in the future, so SDP is working in partnership with the Scottish Government to ensure that suppliers are prepared and "tender ready." SDP has also provided free training via webinar to public sector buyers that may require to use the tool in upcoming procurement exercises.

Thank You

The Supplier Development Programme thanks all of our trainers for participating in the virtual panel, and John Clark of JI Management Ltd. for compiling answers to the additional questions available above on behalf of the Supplier Development Programme.

For further information, contact the Supplier Development Programme by email. Scottish suppliers from micro, small and medium sized businesses, as well as supported businesses, are also encouraged to visit the Events and Training section of the SDP website to register for free tender training that can help you find, win and keep public sector contracts.

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