Monday 30 January 2012

Competitive Tendering: A Personal Anecdotal Update

Last Spring, some may remember a piece here on public sector competitive tendering; the way that it now arguably costs the taxpayer rather than saves; how it is a right royal boon to Puddlecote Inc; and how, despite that, I still fundamentally despise its EU-led, self-serving administrative pomposity on principle. Go read it if you have time, as it is a pre-cursor to this latest chapter.

You see, in that article I explained how our competitors had been whittled away in the past seven or eight years. Where there used to be around 120 of us battling for the opportunities from public sector contracts, at time of writing last April it was down to just under 40. We were successful in being accepted for that particular framework, but things have moved on somewhat since.

In what, at times, resembles a game of oneupmanship, a different authority re-tendered their available work in our field ... with even more administrative pre-qualification than that described, at the back end of last year.

This time, incredibly, it demanded a submission of nearly 10,000 words, which took me six full days to compose, along with comprehensive vehicle listings; profiles of all staff, along with full CVs in certain cases; and a pricing structure questionnaire running to five A4 pages. This, for an industry populated mostly by industrious working class people not adept at understanding, let alone regurgitating, middle class Sir Humphrey-speak.

Again, it would seem that many of our competitors have thrown their hands in the air and walked away from the whole process (I can tell you that there were times when our own office urged me to do the same). We ploughed on though and, from what we can gather, our competition has now been whittled down by a further 40% or thereabouts.

We thought that would be it, but oh no. Word has reached us that 'presentations' have been hastily arranged for the surviving short-listed firms, with just two days to compile them. We are expected to present - for 40 minutes including Q&A - exactly the same information I spent a week and a bit detailing in shark-jumping detail at the turn of the year. It's like they read all the reams of paperwork and said "Yes, very good. Now, tell us it all again over tea and biscuits.". Fortunately, we are large enough to devote one person's time - muggins's - exclusively to this hoop-jumping exercise, but others have no such luxury even if they were willing and able. There's the small matter of them actually performing the paying employment which keeps their businesses alive, you see.

Remember, there is still not a penny of work on the table yet. This is all just to be placed on a framework agreement for the opportunity to bid.

Anyway, I suppose that's a round about way of telling you that there might not be much content here in the next two or three days, as I'll be busy building an entirely unnecessary Powerpoint slide show to justify the budgets of the concerned authority's procurement division. While I enjoy writing in all kinds of settings, I'm afraid priority goes to doing so where I have the chance of being paid, and that ain't here.

Oh, silly me, I nearly forgot to mention. The said procurement division, as I understand it from someone who retired from there last year, used to comprise 12 staff. They now boast 75.

Still, there are upsides to all this effort, though not for the taxpayer natch. Firstly, there was certainly more wriggle room when it came to pricing this lot up, there being a big drop in competition and all. And one question required of the presentation is dead easy to address, that of our ability to bring in staff to cope with the extra demand. The constant stream of applicants through our doors - from former competitors losing work the whole process inflicts on them - means we won't even have to spend anything on recruitment advertising.

I can only finish with the same denouement as last time.
Remember, our industry is just one small part of public sector outsourcing. Every supplier, in every field, is being put through this.

Competitive tendering is supposed to act against monopolies and cartels, yet EU legislation is actively encouraging them in every town hall up and down the UK.
Sadly, this is the big problem. Whereas the rules on competitive tendering were designed to empower the little guy in providing a service to drag costs down amongst the bigger players, burgeoning administrative demands - through red tape handed down in so many areas it would require a new article just to list them all - means that the public sector is profiting at the expense of efficiency and increased savings to the taxpayer.

It's never been better to be a big fish, and never been worse to be a small one trying to get a first fin on the success ladder. Fortunately, the government are furiously working on the problem, as their incredibly busy Red Tape Challenge Twitter feed shows.



Mudplugger said...

My sympathies, DP.  I was once responsible for buying large volumes of IT equipment for a utility and fought tooth & nail with our Procurement Department to eliminate much of the unnecessary dross which forced wasteful time and expense on potential suppliers - we were going to end up paying for it all, so why add to the bill - and it also stopped many potential small suppliers (whom I always preferred) from tendering.

I won some small skirmishes but, in truth, the battle from within was ultimately unwinnable, faced with the apparent need for 'cover-our-arses' procedures by all the careerists.

Thomas said...

"The said procurement division, as I understand it from someone who retired from there last year, used to comprise 12 staff. They now boast 75"

That pretty much explains why all the extra paperwork and red-tape is "necessary". It's because the ones in charge are expanding their little government office empires as they manufacture a "need" for higher budget allowances, larger staff, higher pay, more benefits, etc.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

I'm glad someone mentioned that part as it might need explaining. They apparently decided that efficient procurement was the way to make savings, so now tender for everything from involved contracts like ours to paper clips. Sadly, they got rid of half the staff who knew all about intricacies of transport and, instead, hired more procurement professionals who know bugger all about people management, but are great with inanimate objects.

This, we were told by the retiree, is why they now need so many people to do the same as the ones they got rid of to make the 'savings'. They're trying to work out what the hell they are supposed to be understanding. 

Dick_Puddlecote said...

'Cover-our-arses' says it all. I could have saved many words with that term. ;)

WitteringWitney said...

Have 'tweeted' this post DP - seriously my heart bleeds for one trying to make a living......

Broggle said...

I admire you for still dealing with all this crap, DP.  I gave up the ghost almost 18 months ago and shut down my business that I had run for over 10 years.  All staff redundant.  Sick to death of the regulation and red tape.  I am slightly poorer but a lot less stressed and a lot happier.  My blood pressure quickly returned to normal for the first time in over 3 years.  I am now employed after many years of running my own business and it is just so easy now.

Legiron said...

A few years ago I had to fill out an 'ethics committee' form for an experiment. It was one page. What are you planning to do, is it likely to harm anyone and what criteria have you applied that will make you stop doing it if it shows signs of harming anyone?

This year, they need something the size of my PhD thesis for something utterly harmless and already shown to be effective at curing a disease. I said 'Sod it. Let them keep their disease'.

I have a freezer full in case I ever catch it, of course...

moonrakin said...

Out of control bureaucracy ... It's like Japanese knot weed in a garden, choking everything.

IIRC the public sector tendering requirement has bloated directly as a result of EU regulation ... There's several Directives that these folk are busying themselves lavishly gold plating and embroidering.

In truth though it's peculation - this utter obsession with process in the public sector  drives an inverse relationship with delivery and it's rampant on the "supply" side as well. An outstanding example being MoD = sack the servicemen and spend years over administrating galactically overpriced, woefully under performing major projects. 

I wouldn't be surprised to hear in a few weeks time that the contract's been revised down in value due to insufficient funds - bit like the Kinshasa public bus scheme a few years back.
I sometimes think that a reboot of a society is required from time to time.....

I have ceased to wonder that people in these organisations have zero overall perception of what it is that they are trying to achieve and put everything into vying for "status" inside their own contrived game never mind  hanging out on Facebook and 'sleb sites.... 


Surreptitious Evil said...

Mrs S-E is doing her PhD at the moment. One of the things she is interested in is how good mobile phone cameras might be for capturing confidential information exposed in public. So she wanted people to bring in their phones, take pics of a few test images from different distances and send them to her. Ethics approval required ...

Sad But Mad Lad said...

Another great example of OTT tendering is that of West Lothian police's 45 page, 10,000 word, document for sandwiches.

"baguette[s] measuring 11 inches
long, and containing one of 17 different fillings set out in a separate
spreadsheet, which include brie and cranberry, smoked salmon and cream
cheese and prawn mayonnaise...filled to “the standard size and weight stipulated
by the British Sandwich Association"