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How to get ahead with public sector tenders

Define your technical objectives

I’ve been discussing the very start of a digital project – procurement – recently with my public sector customers.  How do you write a tender which will get you the result you really want?

Too many digital procurements lead to projects which are costly failures. Suppliers complain that the requirements weren’t sufficiently well-defined in the original tender. Buyers complain that the chosen supplier wasn’t capable of delivering what’s actually needed. Both sides argue over change requests, and ultimately, what gets developed isn’t what the end users really wanted.

Best case, your project is completed to a sub-optimal standard, but your users aren’t as satisfied as they deserve to be, given the public money that’s been spent. Worst case, you may have to cancel the project and start again – an expensive waste of time and money for everyone involved.

One thing is certain though – no project is ever going to be specified perfectly from the beginning. Overcoming uncertainty, both known unknowns and unknown unknowns, is inevitably one of the biggest challenges in digital work.

So it’s important both that your tender helps you ask for what you really want in the right way, and – given the current climate of austerity – that weighting a tender too heavily towards the cheapest price doesn’t end up becoming a costly error, forcing you to choose a supplier who’s not up to the job.

Ask the right questions

Following on from the tips in this article, I believe it’s essential to focus on the outcomes that will constitute success, and assessing the competencies and behaviours that will get you there, rather than being overly prescriptive either about the specifics of the supplier’s current knowledge, or a wishlist of what the system needs to do.

This is especially true for bespoke procurement, of the nature of those published on the GDS Digital Outcomes framework – the clue’s in the name, and my opinion is that this new framework gets a lot of things right.

One top tip is not to ask for specific technology or business domain knowledge in your procurement – good suppliers can pick those things up quickly. Rather, ask for evidence that the supplier can overcome the architectural and human challenges which are most relevant to your project and that they’ve tackled similar high-level problems before, whether that be in the public or private sector.

For instance, “experience in developing large-scale high-traffic systems to meet performance KPIs”, or “ability to communicate with non-technical stakeholders on technical issues”. Asking about how the supplier has tackled challenges like these before will give you insight into how they’d approach your project.

If specific technical expertise is a must, I’d recommend specifying a class of tools, not just one – e.g. “non-relational databases” rather than “MongoDB “. Provided the supplier can learn quickly, prior knowledge of your specific tech stack won’t be the primary cause of success or failure of your project – things like cultural fit, communication and the ability to solve problems are the real make-or-breaks.

Face to face meetings

An early opportunity for suppliers to meet face-to-face and ask questions, which will help shape the requirements as well as allowing suppliers to understand them better, is also incredibly valuable for both sides. This can be achieved through early market engagement sessions, and we are always very happy to get involved in these and give feedback to buyers.

We’d also strongly recommend a face-to-face element within the procurement process itself, such as a presentation or competency interview – the GDS Digital Outcomes framework, among others, recognises this as an important element.

In essence, procurement needs to start learning lessons from HR. There’s a reason that developer interviews have evolved from quizzes on Java semantics to competency-based questions and working through shared coding problems together – you get a much better idea of what the candidate is really capable of and whether you could successfully work with them. Approaching procurement with a similar mindset will help public sector buyers to get what they really want.

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