In a slightly random and tangential way, our latest blog compares commissioning and procurement activity to the side effects of global warming: full of droughts, and floods.
Obviously, commissioning doesn’t have much to do with increased levels of carbon dioxide (though you could argue commissioners can be full of hot air), but I’m sure you get the symbolism. We go through periods when there are too many tender opportunities to manage, and others when there is nothing out there to bid for. But can, and do, commissioners consider other government departments’ commissioning pipelines when they consider their own?
Arguably, it’s not always practically possible to work cross-departmentally in this way. Each department has timeframes for their commissioning activity, sometimes linked to somewhat arbitrary goals like Christmas, others slightly less so – the end of the financial year, or even general elections. But if commissioners did plan collaboratively, surely it would be a good thing? Both in terms of demand – the market being able to submit high-quality bids – and in terms of supply – commissioners taking into account other complementary, aligned or even counter-effective procurement activity, considering the effects of this, and designing their commissioning to have a positive multiplier effect, rather than the opposite.
So how do we at Candour Collaborations see the current state of play? As a broad rule, public sector procurement comes in peaks and troughs. Summertime can be worryingly quiet, yet Christmas can be manic. I don’t know any business development professionals who haven’t had to work at least one Christmas Day. Right now, in two of our core markets – employability and skills – contractors of services to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Skills Funding Agency (SFA) are looking for the ‘next big show in town’. For many, this will be the National Careers Service procurement, which was due to be competed in July 2012. Following significant delays (do we call them ‘significant’ when we’ve already been waiting 13 months?!), it is now anticipated to be tendered relatively soon.
However, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) having just commenced Transforming Rehabilitation procurement, worth up to £20bn over the next ten years, few in the marketplace will have sufficient resources to bid directly for both. Yet it’s completely logical that a company that delivers adult employability services via DWP Work Programme may also be interested in bidding for similar provision to young people through the Education Funding Agency (EFA), or to ex-offenders through MoJ, or to also deliver accredited training to these same people via SFA.
And if it all kicks off at once, does anyone but the ‘big fish’ have the required capacity and capability in-house to deal with simultaneous, highly-demanding, and strategically significant tenders? When turnaround times for submission are ridiculously short, this puts even greater pressure on many organisations to make choices about what they do and don’t bid for. Especially those smaller, local organisations which cannot afford to simply throw money at consultancy or temporary resources. This gives larger companies with greater resources a clear competitive advantage. And it’s not exactly a rare occurrence.
To illustrate the point, we once had an important tender released to market on the 20th December, with a turnaround of just 10 days, whilst working simultaneously on two other bids…in a team of three. So that’s any hope of seasonal festivities out of the window, then! We buckled down, prioritised and worked day and night to get good-quality bids submitted. Just because commissioners can accelerate procurement rounds doesn’t mean they should.
What can we do about it, though? We can build in contingency planning around potential commissioning delays to minimise the impact of their occurrence, we can advocate for fair tender timescales, and we can create additional funding to support smaller organisations to compete on a larger scale (as the ICRF fund aims to do). We can try to work with commissioners so that they, when possible, publish their commissioning intentions (as some do already: MoJ, DWP) and that when planning procurement, they consider the pipelines of other departments. But this doesn’t stop departments commissioning something that significantly deviates from their published documents.
Commissioners and wider Government say they want a competitive and diverse provider base. As we have all seen, their activity can actually drive the opposite. It isn’t just about timing of procurement rounds either (I should probably insert something here about temperate weather conditions…), it’s about the resource implications of implementing multiple contracts, and the cash flow issues created by a wider move to Payment by Results contracting as standard. This is a challenging time, and a challenging marketplace to compete in. Many organisations are already having difficulty adapting to the changing environment. We should celebrate and encourage a diverse provider base, which can help people to address a range of needs. Yet how can they win the contracts to do so when they’re all busy carrying around massive metaphorical brollies, sun glasses and buckets of suntan lotion?
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