Public Sector: Getting past first base

Bidding for a government department tender can be a confusing process. But help is at hand, finds Joe Lepper.

When COI Communications deputy director of PR Janice O'Reilly opened her roster up for tender last year, 170 PR agencies applied but just 31 made the 'shortlist'.

The figure reflects just how sought after public sector PR work has become.

According to the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (2003), the public sector ranked second in terms of offering best margins.

But while O'Reilly's experience shows that more want a slice, it also reveals many agencies are left disappointed by what is seen as a complex and arduous process.

How to know what government departments are looking for, and what to do to satisfy them, is a question that many want answered. But help is starting to become available.

Tenders Direct offers training courses to help agencies gain success.

MD Tim Williams says although public sector tendering varies across organisations, there are a number of basic criteria and procedures that most clients follow.

These include a timetable with strict deadlines, asking for expressions of interest, then further questions relating to your suitability to handle the account and details of your business (see box).

Facing the competition

The organisation also offers help on issues that have typically caused agencies to stumble. When contracts reach a certain sum, for example, the tender process is complicated because EU rules insist that competition must be opened across Europe, advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). For central government or NHS bodies this is enacted when an account reaches £99,695. For local authorities and universities the threshold is £153,376.

The EU directive relating to PR agencies dates back to 1992 but, by January 2006, this will be updated. The main difference is that, due to advances in email, deadlines have been reduced. Previously, 37 days was allowed to express interest in an account, but this will be reduced to 30. The 40-day deadline from when clients send out documents to shortlisted firms seeking further information will be reduced to 35 days.

But does help like this really affect outcome if the client has other reasons to pitch? Some, like Chris Genasi, CIPR president and chief executive of Eloqui, whose clients include the Countryside Agency and the British Library, go so far as to say that applying to handle some public sector accounts can be pointless as clients often have in mind who they want.

In fact, this June the CIPR is to issue a guidance document aimed at both clients and suppliers on best practice in tendering. 'If the incumbent is doing a good job then an agency has to ask whether the client is just tendering because their rules say they have to,' he says.

However, Lawson Dodd director Belinda Lawson says learning as much as possible always helps. She took a course run by Business Link after being knocked back at an early stage of an Arts Council tender.

She says: 'We had a very creative set of ideas, but didn't fully understand that the public sector is very process-driven.'

Playing by the rules

Of course, once the particulars of the public sector are understood, many of the same rules apply that any reputable PR company should stick to for any tender. Although, the consensus seems to be to emphasise them more. 'We are an Equal Employer but it's no good putting in a line saying it; you need to really show you have these policies,' adds Lawson.

According to O'Reilly, the main reason agencies were rejected was that some were simply too niche. But she says: 'Once you label yourself as a generalist you are competing against the very biggest names in the industry.'

Another major reason agencies were rejected was failure to answer questions.

'Attention to detail can be a problem,' O'Reilly adds. 'We even get some hand-written forms. While we won't reject them outright, the effect is accumulative, so if they also have other errors we have to wonder if they will do a good job for us.'

Department of Work and Pensions communications director Simon MacDowall recalls one firm that refused to answer a question relating to experience properly. It referred procurement officers to existing clients for comment.

'You have to be specific and help us to make a decision,' he says.

Department of Health head of campaign management Wyn Roberts says another bugbear is agencies that are 'unaware of what has been front pagenews in the past week or ten days'.

The key, it seems, is not taking the public sector for granted. For Lucian Hudson, director of communications at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, this means 'added value'.

He says: 'We don't want to hand out contracts to anyone. They've got to prove they can come up with ideas we hadn't thought of. I'm also looking for those that can work collaboratively.'

Those from agencies with a successful track record in public sector tendering agree. Nikki Chee is head of business development at Harrison Cowley, whose recent work includes the Home Office's 'It's Your Call' crackdown on anti-social behaviour.

She says: 'You have to really demonstrate your point of difference and for us it is our ability to work at national and regional levels.'

Karen Harris, founder of Geronimo PR, whose clients include the DVLA, Department of Work and Pensions and Department for Education and Skills, adds: 'Demonstrating experience is vital. Without that there's no chance. It's no good wanting to handle an account aimed at youth if you've never done that before.'

But even for those experienced in public sector tendering processes there are still pitfalls.

Helen Ashley, director of Upward Curve, whose clients include Kingston Town Centre Management, says even for small projects, most public sector bodies seek to obtain three quotes. 'Sometimes this can lead to the process being a paper exercise in order to appoint a preferred supplier,' she says.

Another frustration is that while agencies are expected to meet strict deadlines, these are often ignored by the client. Ashley says: 'One local authority made its shortlisting decision nine months after the date specified in the tender document.'

A senior director of another public sector specialist agency, who declined to be named for fear of losing clients, goes even further, suggesting that while the rigorous process for tendering is meant to make it more fair, often, 'it's not what you know, it's who you know'.

He says: 'You can pour your heart and soul into answering all the relevant points but then you find out the client is more likely to say: "I know so and so, we'll get them in".'

As Genasi concludes: 'There are pitfalls, and it can seem complex, but it need not be. Just think of it like doing exams. As long as you do your homework you should be fine.'

WHAT GOVT BODIES WANT

Common criteria asked for by public sector bodies:

- Good financial track record, including up-to-date tax payments and no history of bankruptcy or insolvency

- The ability to prove sufficient technical ability to handle the account, often including production capacity and qualifications of staff

- A strong track record of work relevant to the account and the organisation

- Proof of a health and safety policy, a quality assurance system and, increasingly, environmental and equal opportunities policies. The Commission for Racial Equality provides some guidance for suppliers on equality (www.cre.gov.uk/publs/cat_duty.html#procure)

HOW TO MAKE SURE YOUR BID GETS NOTICED

- It is a myth that the public sector is only interested in price.

Make your bid stand out and be as creative as possible

- Clearly and prominently explain how your bid will resolve the client's problems and provide clear evaluation on how they will get a return on their investment

- Make sure you relate your experience and previous work to the organisation

- Provide thorough and accurate answers to questions in the requested format. Often a table of contents and section dividers are useful. In most cases, dozens of bids are being processed so it is important to make your bid as easy as possible to digest

- Make sure you answer the three fundamental questions: What are they are going to get? When are they are going to get it? How much is it going to cost?

- Be aware of deadlines, bids have been known to be rejected for being as little as five minutes late

- Make sure you not only run an ethical business but that you can demonstrate this

- Answer all questions. If this proves a problem, seek advice from the client

- Do some digging. The tender may just be a procedural paper exercise with a preferred supplier already lined up.

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