Applying For Public Sector Contracts

Posted: Tuesday May 18 2021

By: Ad Venture Programme

A fun fact for you – There are 5.7 million SMEs in the UK, employing 16 million people and accounting for £1.9 trillion of turnover. Impressive I think.

Applying For Public Sector Contracts And Winning Submissions 

I’m passionate about small businesses, and believe we should try our hardest to make sure all businesses can access opportunities through public sector, with an emphasis on SMEs who are the lifeblood of the UK economy.

Happily, the government agree with this sentiment and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy launched the SME action plan on the 6 March in 2019.

So, what does this mean to you?

The SME Action Plan sets out a commitment by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that by 2022, at least £1 in every £3 government spends will be with smaller businesses and the BEIS Group will spend an extra £35 million with SMEs.

The aim is to level the playing field for SMEs bidding for government procurement contracts. BEIS and its partner agencies currently spend approximately £360 million a year on SMEs.

This is just a portion of the overall public sector spend, and all departments have commitments to encourage more SMEs to apply for contract opportunities.

So in a nutshell, it means that more contracts should be made more attractive to SMEs, ensuring swift payment, allowing for collaborative bids and also making contract opportunities easier to find.

What do I know about applying for public sector contracts ?

Working in public sector and with a role in Economic Development, I work with a huge variety of businesses, of all shapes and sizes.

As part of my role I also have to manage a number of procurements, so although by no means a technical procurement expert, I know a bit about this subject from both sides of the fence, and wanted to share some insight into my experiences with procurement and a few tips to help you access more opportunities.

Accessing opportunities

Transparency, integrity, economy, openness, fairness, competition and accountability are some of the fundamental principles applied to public sector procurement.

Now, I am sure you can see the purpose behind these, and how the application of these principles ensures good practice in procurement, as well as giving fair opportunity.

These principles do work well on the whole, but if you don’t know how it works, it can feel like you don’t even know where to begin, particularly to smaller businesses who may not be aware of or used to the process of procurement.

So, to start with – You need to be in it to win it!

There are a few ways you can look at getting into public sector supply chains, but ensuring you are registered on appropriate procurement portals is a good place to start, and will mean you are in the mix for a wide range of opportunities.

Yortender is the procurement portal used by the Local authorities in the Yorkshire & Humber Region who have a combined external spend of some £4.5 billion per annum. The list of organisations on this one alone is huge:

Organisations on YorTender

You can register free to promote your business capabilities and to start receiving email alerts for contract opportunities.

When you register for this portal, or any other (I’ll list a few at the end) it’s really important that you make sure your profile and associated categories are accurate. When you go on, you’ll see there are loads of categories, and it is worth going through and adding all the ones that link in any way to what you do.

Once registered, you can view current contract opportunities advertised across the Region

You can also check the Contract Register to view current contracts and recently awarded contracts, very helpful as this will provide a future view of potential opportunities and even businesses in industry you could offer your services to as a sub-contractor.

There are also helpful user guides for instructions on using the system and frequently asked questions.

I always advise businesses to set up a separate dedicated inbox for opportunities, especially if you have registered on a number of portals across the UK, which I would recommend as this broadens your reach.

Once you see the types of opportunities you are getting, you can see if they are relevant to your services and whether you have your categories right. The more you have the better, as it widens scope, but they should also be linked to what you actually want to do!

There are also opportunities to work with organisations on scoping for services – This will mean you can be part of the exploratory work to define a contract requirement. This would be open again for expressions of interest, and would still need to be transparent, but does allow you to offer insight along with other industry peers.

You will still need to submit your response and follow usual procedure, but it does mean the people who have helped to define the contract will probably have a good chance of submitting a strong tender response.

In addition to these procurement portals, central government have also set up Contracts Finder, which links to local procurement and requires all contracts to be published on there too. This is a great tool for searching upcoming opportunities, and also looking at what has been contracted previously, giving you some insight into what services and works public sector are looking for.

You’ve spotted a good one, now what?

Great – You’ve seen a contract you think is just up your street. So how do you submit the tender?

Each contract opportunity will have an instruction for submission. This will usually mean registering an interest, so you can access the full brief and get started.

They generally ask you to submit via the portal, and not directly to the contracting manager. If you submit via a different route, it’s unlikely it will be accepted as these systems create an audit trail, basically protecting the contracting manager and you the potential suppliers, ensuring everyone has had the same brief, opportunity and route of submission.

Its fine to ask questions, but do this via the portal as directed. If you email the contract manager or try to call them for a chat, it’s not going to help you or them as they cannot give information to one business over another – hence the fairness and transparency aspect.

You can submit questions and ask for clarifications via portals though, and will get a response.

Writing your submission when applying for public sector contracts

Next step after registering your interest is to work on the tender submission. These can vary massively dependant on the value of the contract and the nature of the services or works.

It may be very specific, not lending itself to suggestions from you, but asking for a very exact service. It could be more open, asking for input from the supplier on how they would approach the challenge or requirement. Remember, those of us asking for the product or service are not likely to be experts, hence the need for the procurement in the first place.  Though we will have a good idea of what we need, the suppliers will be expert in that industry so the questions can sometimes be broader, asking for solutions to meet a particular need.

A few simple tips based on my experience on assessing submissions.

  1. Provide it in the format requested.

This may seem obvious but I have had many submitted in a totally different format than I requested. For example: I’ve asked 10 questions, each has a score relating to it. I want the answers to correspond to the question as I am scoring 9 submissions and need to ensure they are all fairly scored and I can compare responses. One of them sends theirs on their own document, answering everything in one statement. This is not helpful, as I am having to pull answers from loads of text. I wanted an answer to each question, not an exercise in finding the needle in the haystack! This can result in tenders being thrown out, as effectively they have not answered the questions as asked. Think about it like a job application, and don’t assume the reader will have days to go through your submission.

  1. Answer the questions asked, providing evidence if required.

This links nicely from the previous point. Word limits can be recommended, but not always. If you have been given one, make sure you apply it and answer the question succinctly. If not, still answer the question as succinctly as possible. More words do not equal a stronger response.

Answer the question clearly, linking to examples or evidence where appropriate. If you are asked to provide details of your experience relating to a particular skill, make sure the response corresponds. Larger companies are often guilty of this, as they may apply for a lot of bids and they will have stock responses for certain things. Dropping one in that covers everything under the sun is not helpful, and doesn’t give evidence that the business understands the question they are being asked or has taken care in their response. Again this makes me think of job applications, where you want the person you are interviewing to have done their research, and not provide stock responses.

  1. Read the full brief before you start

Making sure you understand the full requirements and know what the buyer is looking for will help you frame your response, and make sure you have covered all aspects of the brief.

This will also reduce any risk of missing a key part. I have had some fantastic submissions, and then found they have not attached the pricing schedule, so I can’t include them in the final assessment! This is as frustrating for those assessing as it is for the bidder.

  1. Ask someone else to read it

Accuracy is also key, because once these submissions are in the system, part of the audit requirements are that nobody can open them until deadline, and then they are all done together.  Once opened, if something is missing, there is pretty much no going back, as you have to go with what you have. Some clarification questions can be asked, but it’s good if they are kept to a minimum and it would be at the discretion of the buyer – So aim to get it all right first time!

  1. Ask for advice

If you are new to writing submissions, or have questions on a particular tender, reach out and ask for help. Business advisors, such as the ones we have in AD:VENTURE have loads of experience and will happily talk you through what you should do. You can ask people in public sector for advice, as long as they aren’t the ones contracting the work!

A great example of this was an AD:VENTURE client Helen Northard, founder of Human Spirit Ltd

“Although I had previously dismissed tenders, my advisor Alan had real confidence in me and made me look at these opportunities slightly differently. There was a voice in my head saying ‘I can’t do this’ but we worked together to change that mindset and decided that I would look at this as a live practice and so that’s what I did.”

The outcome? Not only did Helen submit her tender but was invited to present and subsequently won the contract with a leading public sector organisation. Well done Helen!!!

She continues: “It I hadn’t had the support from AD:VENTURE I wouldn’t have had the courage to go for a tender. It’s not about my self-belief or knowing that I can deliver for my customers, it’s about taking steps that are very much outside of my comfort zone.

It is about exploring these opportunities, and putting yourself out there. You won’t win them all, but you will win some

Is it worth my time in applying For Public Sector Contracts?

The process can seem onerous at first, but once you understand the principles and get to grips with how these submissions are structured and assessed, it does get easier!

I’m not saying have standardised statements for bids, as I mentioned earlier, but it is a good idea to create a bank of content, evidence and case studies on your services, much like you would your career CV. This way, when you are writing bids, you’ll have core examples to use and can pull aspects out and tailor them to your submission.

For larger contracts, it is also worth considering bringing in the expertise of a bid writer. They’ll usually take a percentage from the overall contract costs. Something to consider if you are pitching for a big contract.

I have always found that the contractors I work with deliver expertly and often above and beyond what I had asked for. I have had discussions with private sector friends and contacts who have signed up to arrangements without looking into the detail as much as we would, and they have experienced poor delivery, so I feel the level of due diligence and process applied means the contracts are well considered, and this pays off for both the supplier and our organisation.

I have yet to terminate a contract for non-delivery, and we have always paid suppliers on time and as agreed.

Don’t give up when applying For Public Sector Contracts

Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get the contract, and don’t take it personally. I’ve gone out for re-contracting and on more than one occasion the brilliant supplier I was working with didn’t get the new contract because another company scored higher with their submission. I find that really hard, it’s like a break up and it is a part of my role I don’t particularly love, but it does mean the system gives everyone a fair chance.

Ask for feedback, most will happily provide this, and it will help you understand how you can improve for next time.

My advice is choose carefully what you pitch for, make sure you do have the skills and expertise to deliver and price yourself fairly – You shouldn’t go far wrong.

Consortium Bids

I wanted to mention something else before we get to the end of the blog and the useful links bit.

Are you aware most contracts allow for consortium bids?

“Consortium bidding is the term used to describe the situation where two or more economic operators come together to submit a bid for a contract in a public procurement process.

This may either be through an already established consortium or a group of bidders who come together for a specific contract”

Simply put this means you can team up with other small business providers, covering contracts with your combined range of services, skills or products.

Most contracts are open to consortium and this is what makes larger contracts much more accessible to SME businesses. You don’t have to be joint venture partners, or linked in any way apart from the contract. You would need to have your own arrangements on the payment and management side, and consider agreements on data and legal implications, but if you have a group of trusted suppliers you could be stronger together when looking at these opportunities.

Some useful links to widen your net – Applying For Public Sector Contracts

I hope that has helped you understand how to access government contracts opportunities, and has provided some good hints on how to make the best of your submission.

Here are some links to a variety of procurement portals, government and private sector across the UK that you may want to explore.

Do have a look for ones that may be relevant to your industry too. There are lots out there, so pick what is right for you.

#Applying For Public Sector Contracts

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